The ancient battlements and regal dining rooms of a County Durham castle are set to house some of the nation's greatest artistic treasures, after National Gallery officials backed plans to found an unprecedented outpost for the London institution in north-east England.
Auckland Castle, official home of the Bishop of Durham for over 200 years, is set to play host to National Gallery works by the likes of Titian, Turner and Tintoretto as part of a drive to make the castle a regional tourist destination. The proposal has been backed by the former National Gallery chairman Lord Jacob Rothschild, with a spokesperson for the National Gallery saying it "hopes to be able to lend" to the castle. This would be subject to the approval of National Gallery trustees, one of whom is Lord Rothschild's daughter, Hannah.
"It would be wonderful if the gallery trustees were to lend appropriate paintings to Auckland Castle and establish an outstation for north-east England," said Lord Rothschild, who indicated the gallery may wish to loan paintings on a rotational basis to the heritage spot.
The move comes after the Rothschild Foundation donated £1m to the castle earlier this year. According to a report this month in The Art Newspaper, discussions over how to proceed are taking place between the National Gallery, Durham County Council, the National Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Department for Media, Culture and Sport, and English Heritage. The gallery's loans would join the castle's most prominent artistic attraction: a set of 12 paintings of the Old Testament character of Jacob and his children by the Spanish painter Francisco Zurbarán which were saved for the nation last month by investor Jonathan Ruffer. He bought the paintings from the Church of England for £15m. He then decided to donate the portraits, which have hung in the castle's dining room for 250 years, back to the castle, in order to support ongoing plans to expand the attraction's reach.
"I was the only person in a position to do anything about it," Mr Ruffer said last month. "I happened to have £15m. I wanted to do something for the north-east, where I come from. And I collect such paintings. Four years ago, I bought a Gainsborough copy of one of those Zurbaráns of a cowled saint. My first thought had been a commercial one – that I could buy them for myself – but then I realised that there was something much more important to do."
The Church of England decided to sell the paintings, it said, to raise money for church initiatives in poorer areas, a move that was criticised by Nicholas Penny, the National Gallery director, at the time. "It is very upsetting that the church would be prepared to sacrifice such works of history and beauty," said Mr Penny. "They have an enormous historical interest which is tied up with where they are and I doubt whether the north-east can afford to spare them."