In the English northern market town of Bishop Auckland, positioned high above the meandering River Wear, Auckland Castle was the seat of the Prince Bishops of Durham, a lineage of incredibly powerful figures. These Bishops were given exceptional powers by the Norman kings of England, as well as the Church, and governed vast swathes of North East England.
One of these Bishops, Richard Trevor (1707–1771) was a fervent advocate of religious tolerance and inclusion, and he acquired at auction a cycle of Spanish paintings ‘Jacob and his Twelve Sons’ by Francisco de Zurbarán (1599-1660). Since that time these towering figures of the Old Testament Patriarchs have remained in the castle’s long dining room under the ownership of the Church of England until 2012, when they were transferred, along with the castle, to the care of The Auckland Project, a regeneration charity founded by philanthropists Johnathan and Jane Ruffer.
Building on the rich 1,000-year history of the former Bishop’s Palace, The Auckland Project now encompasses seven sites in one setting, Auckland Castle, The Mining Art Gallery, Auckland Tower visitor centre, the Deer Park and Walled Garden. A museum dedicated to the history of faith in Britain is due to open in 2023 and the latest gallery to open is the Spanish Gallery. The Spanish Gallery complements and contextualises the cycle of paintings by Francesco de Zurbarán by telling the story of the Golden Age of Spanish Art during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, have transformed two previously vacant Grade II Listed Buildings in Bishop Auckland market square to create the Spanish Gallery. This features twelve exhibition spaces spread over three floors, including a dramatic double-height space and extension, created to accommodate larger works.
A fourth floor is dedicated to the exhibition ‘In the Blink of an Eye, Transience and Eternity in the Spanish Golden Age’ produced by Factum Foundation and Skene Catling de la Peña. This space reimagines the concept and role of a museum by recording and re-embodying original pieces from the Spanish Golden Age to reveal some of the defining characteristics of this period of art and its context.
The start of the visitor journey follows the golden Guadalquivir river through a series of spaces dedicated to the development of the city of Seville in the seventeenth century, and some of the great artists who worked there: Zurbarán (1598-1664), Velázquez (1599-1660) and Murillo (1617-1682).
The journey that these artworks made early on in life, while travelling from artist studio to their new owners’ homes, was often fraught with alarming dangers. That paintings could become lost at sea, or ransomed by pirates, was a genuine risk in the 17thC, and one which did purportedly happen to a number of Spanish masterpieces as they crossed to the Spanish Americas, which was ‘at the time a market hungry for art from the mother country’[i].
International art transport is, thankfully, a less risky affair in present times, and we were delighted to be able to complement our permanent collection artworks with several key loans from local, national and international collections, including a partnership with the Hispanic Society of America (HSA) in New York.
The Hispanic Society of America was founded in 1904 by Archer Milton Huntington (1870-1955) with the object of establishing a free, public museum and reference library for the study of the art and culture of Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and the Philippines. The extraordinary collections of the Hispanic Society, address nearly every aspect of culture in Spain well into the 20thC, and the kind long term loan of three seventeenth century oil paintings was crucial to the storytelling in our Spanish Gallery display : Zurbarán’s St Lucy (c.1630) and two landscapes by unknown artists: The Arenal at Seville and The Shipbuilding Yard at Seville (both 1600-1623).
Together with the Head of Conservation at the Hispanic Society, Hélène Fontoira, we worked to find both the safest and most suitable framed display method to protect the three paintings both during transport, and whilst here on display in the UK. We determined that the best option would be to insert protective glazing between the frame and the painting, while in New York and before transit.
Working with Baobab Frames in New York, we decided to use Optium Museum Acrylic, which offers a light-weight and shatter-proof solution, including a protective hard coat layer. Acrylic avoids adding unnecessary weight that could create strain on the frame and work. Optium glazing is also anti-reflective, and due to its excellent light transmission, can enhance colour and contrast levels, presenting the visitor with a rewarding and uninhibited view of the piece.
As all three paintings are recessed into walls, specifically constructed during the exhibition fit-out for this narrow exhibition area, having glazing in place was essential. This solution allows the public safe proximity to the works, in a display where they can get up close and appreciate the details of these beautiful painted surfaces.
[i] Peter Schjeldahl. “Francisco de Zurbarán’s Biblical Vision”. The New Yorker, 02/12/2018.
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