London should keep its hands off the treasures of the north
The saga of the Zurbarans of Auckland Castle is a testament to the metropolitan elitism of British politics
Friday October 7, 2005
Wonderful news. The Zurbarans are staying at Auckland Castle. Four years ago the Church Commissioners said they were going to flog one of the art treasures of the north-east as a "non-income- producing asset". They were desperate for money after various dud property speculations in London. The "stripping of the north" was the answer. Men in shiny suits said the Zurbarans were good for £20m. Now the commission, under its enlightened boss, Andreas Whittam Smith, has relented. The saga speaks volumes about the Church of England and the politics of art in Britain.
The story of the paintings is exotic: 13 larger-than-life canvases 8ft high depict Jacob and his 12 sons in Spanish peasant costumes. The work of Francisco Zurbaran, they were sent to Mexico in the mid-17th century to promote Catholicism among the native population. It was widely believed that the Aztecs were one of the lost tribes of Israel.
Trevor hung the paintings in the Long Dining Room at Auckland, which the architect, James Wyatt, redesigned for the purpose. He wanted guests to eat in a bishop's palace overlooked by the sons of Israel. He missed just one of the set, Benjamin, which was bought by the Duke of Ancaster, who believed himself descended from that son. This forlorn orphan hangs in the chapel at Grimsthorpe Castle, in Lincolnshire. Trevor had to commission a copy for Auckland.
The whole project was a gesture of religious tolerance, a memorial to the social and political radicalism of this remarkable prelate. So it has remained for 250 years. The room is the glory of a castle that includes Bishop Cosin's heraldic chapel and Wyatt's throne room, where the glass was thoughtfully tinted "to make the ladies appear less pale". Outside, the deer park sweeps above the ravine of the river Wear. The building, in which the bishop has a small house, is the finest "palace" owned by the Church of England. It and its park are open to the public and used for the customary clutter of conferences and weddings.
Enter the Church Commissioners. Trevor left his paintings to the bishops of Durham, not to a gaggle of London property developers. The commissioners claim to own them, to dispose of as they wish. It is the same approach by which Whitehall is currently expropriating for disposal cottage hospitals, almshouses and asylums left explicitly to local communities by their donors. The centre always has the law on its side.
An iron rule of cultural politics is that if any work of art is important, it must be in London, and conversely if it is not in London, it is not important. Where history has the impertinence to locate a fine piece in the provinces, no expense may be spared getting it to London. The object may be a Lindisfarne Gospel, a Wilton diptych, a Raphael Madonna of the Pinks, a Canova Three Graces, a medieval reredos or a stained-glass window. London must have it. If Salisbury Cathedral and Hardwick Hall could be dismantled and shipped to the capital, some London-based quango would consider it money well spent. Anything is better than leaving art to the provincial peasantry.
To add insult to injury, provincial taxpayers must contribute to the upkeep and display of these treasures in the metropolis. The reason given is that, by dint of being in London, they are of "national" importance and thus a legitimate charge on all taxpayers. If provincials want to see them they must raise the train fare and come to London, where entry is said to be "free".
This free entry is hypocritical. The Tate in London is free, but the Tate in St Ives (by the same organisation) charges £5.50. The Maritime Museum in London is free, but its outpost in Falmouth charges £6.50. I can go to the National Gallery in London to see Zurbarans for nothing. The people of Co Durham, among the poorest of any county in England, must pay £4 to see theirs. They must pay to enter their excellent Bowes Museum, or Beamish, or Lindisfarne, or the Hancock Museum. The divide is a monument to the metropolitan elitism of British politics.
For some 200 years the provinces have been stripped of their art treasures by London institutions. The V&A is stuffed with sculpture and stained glass from parish churches. The Victorian burghers of Manchester would come to London each year brimming with gold to purchase the finest works of the season for their City Art Gallery. If they dared to do that today, John Prescott would rate-cap them on the spot for such uppity presumption.
Meanwhile any treasure that has, by some fluke, remained stuck up north is declared a "non-income-producing asset". If anyone sells a work of art in London to fund its gargantuan museum appetite, all hell breaks loose. It is "selling the family silver". Disposing of art in the provinces is sound business.
I am sure the Church of England would never think of selling its London treasures to meet its property losses. It would never part with the Westminster Abbey reredos, the Litlyngton Missal or the Charter of Offa. In St Paul's Cathedral, works by Grinling Gibbons, Jean Tijou and Henry Moore are, we can assume, secure for the time being. Out-of-town assets such as Hereford's Mappa Mundi or Chichester's Lazarus panels might be more at risk. I am sure they could fetch a few quid to sink in someone's hedge fund. But they are safer for being in the south.
The Auckland Zurbarans rank with Raby Castle, Alnwick and Holy Island among the jewels of the north-east. They testify not just to art, but to England's religious and political history. The Church of England cannot need their money if it can afford the reckless expansion of its diocesan bureaucracy. It needs more bishoprics like the NHS needs more quangos.
The good news is that the commissioners have seen the light. The Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, can keep his palace and his pictures, at least until retirement. He must only try to make them pay. In five years, we shall doubtless have the same battle over again. But if taxpayers can subsidise Zurbarans in rich London, why not in poor Durham? We know the answer. The rich decide.
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