Life & Culture

How a collection of 17th-century Jewish paintings inspired a new faith museum

Space in Bishop Auckland uses displays and temporary exhibitions to reveal stories of all religions in Britain spanning 6,000 years


The 13th century Bodleian Bowl, associated with medieval England’s Jewish community, and a projection of a stone cross with the Lindisfarne Gospels are just two exhibits I found in the first Faith Museum in England, which, by some terrible coincidence, opened on October 7.

Ten years in the making owing to Covid and other timing setbacks, this modern and well-organised space in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, uses displays and temporary exhibitions to reveal stories of all faiths in Britain, displayed chronologically and spanning 6,000 years.

Art is an integral part of the exhibits, and I was totally intrigued by the original and mesmerising video installation Idolon on special commission by Mat Collishaw.

Overall, there are 250 objects on show, many on loan from institutions and private collections across England, Scotland and Wales, including the recently closed Jewish Museum in London.

They are displayed in a 14th-century wing of Auckland Castle and a stunning 21st-century building designed by Niall McLaughlin architects.

When I asked the curator Clare Baron about how they had managed to acquire so many valuable works of art, she laughed and said that their unofficial Northern motto was “shy bairns get nought”.

She also said she was quite overwhelmed by just how helpful and generous people were when approached.

The dynamic exhibits are enigmatic and engaging, but even more exciting in my mind, are the circumstances of Jewish interest that led to the museum being established in the first place.

In 2010 the Church Commissioners, which administers the property assets of the Church of England (CoE), put up for sale 13 life-size paintings of Joseph and his 12 sons by the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán, a 17th-century master of the Spanish Golden Age. It argued the CoE needed the £15million they were valued at.

The paintings had first come into the CoE’s domain when they were purchased by the Prince Bishop of Durham, Richard Trevor, in 1756. He was a supporter of the Jewish Naturalisation Act, which had been passed by Parliament three years earlier, and which allowed Jews resident in Britain to become naturalised, so they could vote and own property. It received royal assent on 7 July 1753.

Sadly, it was repealed in less than a year, partly because the Tories protested at what they deemed was an “abandonment of Christianity”.

It was then that Trevor had the long dining room in his castle specially rebuilt to display these large paintings and used their overwhelming presence to actively advocate in defence of the Jewish community and promote theological debate. In the adjacent room he had pictures of the 12 disciples.

One can only imagine the heated discussions that must have taken place while he was entertaining his many influential guests.

Some 250 years later, in 2010, as a reaction to the proposed sale, local doctor Robert McManners, chairman of the Bishop Auckland Civic Society, energetically took up the cause to keep the paintings in the UK, and more specifically in Bishop Auckland itself. As he said at the time: “These paintings were hung here specifically to demonstrate Trevor’s sympathy for the disenfranchised Jews.”

Dr McManners along with his colleagues gave interviews, wrote articles and even had a letter published in The Times advocating their cause. It was then that the financier Jonathan Ruffer responded and agreed to buy all 13 paintings.

Despite this being a most generous offer, it wasn’t quite enough, as Dr McManners believed they should also stay in situ. In an act of astonishing generosity, Ruffer also decided to buy Auckland Castle itself so they could be hung where originally intended. And this is also where he now lives.

This eventually led to the setting up of up the charity The Auckland Project, a unique collection of heritage attractions, galleries, gardens and parkland in Bishop Auckland, with the aim of regenerating this whole area, which was once so reliant on coal mining.

The aim is for it to provide jobs with the hope of fuelling long- term social and economic change through the arts, culture and heritage.

As Ruffer explained to me: “I want everything we are doing here to be a celebration of things that are bigger than we are.

“In fact, the Faith Museum was the hardest piece of the whole jigsaw. We have tried to tell stories that put into context 6,000 years of human endeavour and the restlessness of the human spirit.

“If you look at the history of England, in the first 4,500 years there was no formal religion at all, so the question of different faiths really didn’t arise.

“Then for the last 1,500 years, to 70 years ago, the story was nearly all Christian. It is really only in the last 70 years that different faiths are documented.

“Of course, we have a choice whether we live our lives around religion or whether it is knocking on our door saying can we come in? It’s a confrontation of something bigger than ourselves that makes it interesting.

“And it can also, of course, make us uncomfortable to a certain extent too. So, I want the museum to be somewhere where people can come who are yearning for something more, and that it will settle them. I don’t want anything in the Faith Museum to tell anyone how to be. After all, the glory of all humans is that we are all free agents.”

And he has something else to say: “One of the biggest disappointments of my life is that I was not born Jewish. My family were in banking with a German-sounding name, so I always thought I must have some Jewish ancestry, but sadly I don’t think I do”.

His wife Dr Jane Sequeira does have Jewish parentage, however. She’s directly related to Isaac Henrique Sequeira (1738-1816), a Portuguese Sephardic Jewish doctor, who came to London to be the doctor to the Court of St James.

He was also famously painted by Gainsborough, who was one of his patients. “The family were all Jewish doctors for generations with names that showed this, until about the seventh doctor, who was suddenly rather anglicised with the name Walter Scott Harcourt.”

Isaac Sequeira’s portrait is now in the Prado Art Gallery in Madrid. This and the Spanish artist who painted Joseph and his 12 sons inspired Ruffer’s interest in Spanish art and a Spanish Gallery is now open a few yards down the road from the Faith Museum.

This gallery too is unique in Britain, telling the story of the Spanish Golden Age in the 16th and 17th centuries with works by El Greco, Velázquez and Murillo, and is also home to a remarkable collection of great Spanish masterpieces that have been painstakingly reproduced as facsimiles.

The Faith Museum is just one of the attractions of the Auckland Project; the others include Auckland Castle, where these Jewish paintings hang in the dining room, the ancient St Peter’s Chapel next door; the Deer Park, the Spanish Gallery, the Mining Art Gallery, the Auckland Tower, the Weardale Railway and the newly renovated Park Head Hotel, where I stayed.

The Faith Museum is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Jerusalem Trust.

Its upper floor will house a diverse collection of temporary exhibitions and installations reflecting contemporary issues, and a cluster of events, talks, workshops and educational sessions for school children in the pipeline will enable yet more faith stories to be told, and religious educations to be enriched.

At the exit there are a variety of small books about religion, including Judaism: A Very Short Introduction by interfaith consultant Rabbi Norman Solomon.

And at less than three hours by train from London, a visit to Durham and Britain’s first faith museum is likely nearer than you think.

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