Row over Jacob and Sons church paintings

An MP is lobbying the Church of England to prevent the sale of historic paintings linked to the emancipation of Jews in Britain.

For more than 250 years, pictures of Jacob and his Twelve Sons, by the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran, have hung at Auckland Castle, the official residence of the Bishop of Durham.

But Helen Goodman, the Labour MP for Bishop Auckland, is worried about their long-term future.

"I am concerned that the Church of England may be about to sell them as part of their financial restraint measures," she said. "If they went abroad, it would be a huge loss both to the nation and to the north. It is particularly important that we have a national Jewish heritage, and not one centred entirely in London."

The Zurbarans were painted in the 17th century and brought to Durham by Bishop Richard Trevor in 1756.

Three years earlier he had been an active promoter of the "Jew Bill" in Parliament which sought to naturalise foreign-born Jews. The bill was passed, but repealed almost immediately.

Bishop Trevor had the Long Dining Room at the castle rebuilt to display them.

Robert McManners, author of Zurbarans at Auckland Castle, said: "These paintings were hung specifically to demonstrate Trevor's sympathy for the disenfranchised Jews."

For two and a half centuries, they have pleaded the case for "religious, ethnic and social tolerance", he said.

Since one of the originals of Jacob's sons, Benjamin, was missing, Bishop Trevor even commissioned a copy from British artist, Arthur Pond, at what Mr McManners called "a greatly over-inflated price". This picture now hangs in Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire.

Mrs Goodman's concern stems from the fact that the Church Commissioners have recommended the sale of the paintings once before, in 2001, although indicating a preference for them to remain in the north east.

Mr McManners said the decision caused outrage in Bishop Auckland and in 2005 the Commissioners agreed to let the paintings stay at the Castle for the time being. But their future would be reconsidered in 2010.

"In five years' time, the suitability of Bishop Auckland, and the case to retain the Zurbarans will be much clearer," the chairman of the Commissioners' board of governors, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, said at the time.

A Cof E spokesman said: "The commission has a rolling programme of reviewing the suitability of see houses [official residences] and Auckland Castle is due to be reviewed this autumn."

As a result of reviews, some residences have been sold because they are too costly to maintain or deemed to be in the wrong location.

What has also prompted Mrs Goodman's concern is that the current Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright - who previously opposed the sale - leaves at the end of August.

His successor may not be so committed to Auckland Castle.

    Last updated: 12:56pm, July 29 2010