Church rethink on Old Testament art

One of the Zurbaran paintings

One of the Zurbaran paintings

The Church of England this week agreed to reconsider the future of a set of historic paintings linked to Jewish emancipation in the UK after concerted opposition to their sale.

The portraits of Jacob and his 12 sons by the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran - now believed to be worth £15 million - have hung since 1756 in Auckland Castle in Bishop Auckland, the official residence of the Bishop of Durham.

But local campaigners have earned the pictures a partial reprieve after plans by the Church to put them up for auction came to light last month.

Tony Baldry MP, speaking on behalf of the Church Commissioners in the Commons on Tuesday, announced that Sir Paul Nicholson, the Lord Lieutenant of Durham, would chair a working party over the next three months to see if the paintings could remain at the castle.

But he told Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman, who has been lobbying to keep them in the North-East, that they were currently "a drain" on Church funds. Church leaders say that the sale of the paintings would support the cost of 10 parish priests.

Simon Henig, the Jewish leader of Durham Council, which is also opposed to the sale, said: "They are an important part of the history and culture of County Durham and we will do what we can to keep them here."

Mr Henig, who belongs to Newcastle Reform Synagogue, said: "The paintings are very striking. It is unusual for there to be any artefacts with Old Testament connections in the North-East and they are not the sort of thing you'd expect to see hanging in the home of the Bishop of Durham. It would be a real shame if we lost them."

Another local Jewish politician, Lord Beecham, former leader of Newcastle City Council, has also voiced support for the Zurbarans. "It's a very important collection. It would be a great mistake to sacrifice a major artistic treasure for a short-term capital sum."

    Last updated: 10:04am, December 3 2010