In this blogposting…
*Life in France: Special
Engage first gear….
BISHOP AUCKLAND: THE PRICE OF HERITAGE
It’s not often that you’ll hear my voice raised in support of anything to do with Bishop Auckland. As far as I’m concerned, it’s mostly a lifeless and dull little town where everyone you see in the street seems to be looking for the way out.
Until recently - for me, at least - its points of interest generally conformed to what interests me in the wider, non-Bishop Auckland, world.
Its name is something of a curiosity, for a start. Auckland seems to be linked in some way to the name of the River Clyde in Scotland, though no-one seems to know how or why. (The terminally curious may want to make a pilgrimage to a pub on the outskirts of the town; it’s called The Aclet, and preserves the name in its ancient form.)
There is another local mystery-name here, too. The little River Gaunless flows into the Wear at Bishop Auckland. Its name means ‘useless’ although, again, nobody seems to know why.
Secondly, Auckland is not a town at all really; it’s the name of an area of land on which four separate settlements have arisen, each with the area’s name attached. St Helen Auckland, West Auckland, St Andrew Auckland (usually called South Church) and of course Bishop Auckland itself.
(Before you visit The Aclet, you could do a lot worse than visit South Church, too. There, bedraggled and forlorn in its litter-strewn and unkempt churchyard, stands St Andrew’s Church, one of the most beautiful 13th-century churches in north-east England and the longest parish church in County Durham. Its shameful neglect is one of the reasons I despise the attitude of the local people to their heritage and surroundings.)
Thirdly, it was this Auckland that George Eden was Earl of when he was Viceroy of India in the 1840s; the Eden family are still closely associated with the former earldom - there is a coaching-inn on the old Great North Road hereabouts called The Eden Arms and the British Prime Minister during the Suez Crisis, Sir Anthony Eden, came from here.
Fourthly, it was to honour the aforementioned George Eden that the city of Auckland in New Zealand was so-named.
Fifthly, the town also possesses one of the region’s most interesting Roman ruins - those of the fort at Binchester (Vinovia in Latin). As well as a short stretch of Dere Street, the Roman road which ran straight through it, you can also see one of the most extensive visible remains of a Roman central-heating system (or 'hypocaust') here.
So suddenly, there’s a lot more to the town than I seem to have been giving it credit for over the years. And I haven’t even mentioned Bishop Auckland Palace yet.
It’s been the official residence of the Bishops of Durham since mediaeval times, when they were Prince Bishops with almost regal powers over their bishopric (which extended north to the Scottish border). As such, they extended it, beautified it and laid out its parkland as a deer park.
As part of the embellishment of his Palace, Bishop Trevor bought 13 paintings in 1746. They were by the celebrated Spanish painter Zurbaran. The Bishop paid £124 for them and was so pleased with his purchase that he built a special room to show them off in - thus accidentally creating what is regarded as the world’s very first de facto art gallery.
This just gets more and more interesting, doesn’t it?
Francisco de Zurbaran flourished in the 17th century and is held in very high regard indeed in Spain - running a close second to the likes of Velazquez and El Greco. He was based in Seville and I have seen the statue of him there, which is why I know about him and why I’m so desperately unhappy about the fate of his 13 Bishop Auckland pictures.
Just think of it. We have, here in the north-east, not just one painting by a supreme Spanish artist of the 17th century but 13. Thirteen.
And we are about to lose them.
Sometimes, those to whom we give the power and authority to care for ourselves and our surroundings manage to concoct the most grotesquely short-sighted and inappropriate policies - and then adopt them. T Dan Smith almost single-handedly destroyed the gracious and noble city centre of Newcastle. Recently, we’ve learned that our forests are to be sold off to private enterprise to raise funds.
And, for the same reason, the Church Commissioners have decided that Bishop Trevor’s priceless collection of Zurbaran paintings must be sold.
I know what you’re thinking. Times are hard, even for the cash-strapped Church of England ( - yeah right). They’re only paintings, after all. And it’s unseemly for the Bishop to have them in his Palace when so many of his flock are so comparatively poor, and getting poorer by the day.
The Commissioners are even looking critically at the concept of a Bishop living in such a Palace at all. Perhaps a terrace-house in Shildon, or a hideous Barratt house on some nameless suburban estate somewhere, would be more appropriate.
But this is not a question for Bishops and Church Commissioners, just as the preservation of Georgian Newcastle should not have been at the mercy of one misguided and bigoted philistine. This is a question for all of us, and it is a question about the value - and the usefulness - of art itself.
From my many contacts with benighted people who have the terrible misfortune not to live in the north-east, I know that a very big part of our regenerative success story has been our investment in public art. The list of such projects is, indeed, impressive, from the humble, moving - and inexpensive - Miners’ Memorial at Easington Colliery, with the ‘cage’ standing lonely and evocative on the cliff-top; the recently-installed seaborne sculpture at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea; the mysterious and mystifying metalwork at Consett; the Pavilion at Peterlee; the walrus (and everything else) in Mowbray Park; BALTIC; and of course The Angel.
And now, the rest of the art-appreciating world is watching to see how we react to the sale of these paintings from Bishop Auckland. Because they realise, as we should, that it is not just the value we place on art that is being called into question, but the value we place on our heritage - especially when it’s under threat and times are hard.
T Dan Smith demolished whole streets of buildings that were of international importance because they stood on prime real-estate land and there was money to be made. We wouldn’t do that now, though, would we? Would we?
These paintings should be brought to Durham City. A special gallery should be made for them, perhaps as part of the Cathedral cloisters. That way, we would be celebrating them the way Bishop Trevor did in 1746.
I suspect that, if these paintings were in the possession of the Archbishop of Canterbury, or of York - if they were in Lambeth or Fulham Palace or at Bishopthorpe - no-one would even dream of suggesting that they be sold. But the north-east is a long way from England’s artistic decision-makers in London - many of whom, I have no doubt, are itching to get their hands on them.
It may already be too late. The Zurbarans may already be destined for the auction room - and perhaps the living-rooms of one or more of the 18 multi-millionaires in the Cabinet, any one of whom could easily cough up the £15m or so needed to keep them here.
Because they are so remote from our reality, we must strive to convince them that, despite hard times - or maybe even because of them - we know more than just the price of heritage and art. We know its value.
A ‘LIFE IN FRANCE’ SPECIAL
And while I’m in this bolshy, stand-up-and-protest, mood…
Something very strange and unsettling is happening in France at the moment. And it’s all because of a book. Well, not a book, even. A pamphlet. It’s only about 6 pages long and France is getting very worked up about it.
It was written by a 93-year old called Stephane Hassel and it’s called Indignez-Vous!, which translates roughly as Get Angry!
Stephane is a national hero in France; a survivor of the Resistance and a passionate believer in ‘peace and people’. And Get Angry! is an incitement to do exactly that. To rescue the world of work and art and social responsibility and dignity from the claws of the venal, the corrupt and the avaricious.
It is inflaming many parts of French society. Sarko himself (the 'Garden Gnome', as his millions of detractors call him there) is unsettled by it. It has been translated into English and several other languages. You may find some extracts from it on the internet.
M Hassel’s personality, his heroic history and his conclusions about the world we have created for ourselves and our children have combined to inspire me to read his treatise - in French (just in case anything gets lost in translation). This means that I’m only up to page 2 - and I’m already primed to agitate, protest and complain as volubly as I can.
When I and my generation had a chance to change the world for the better, in the 60s, we failed catastrophically. Instead, we produced the cesspit of money-grubbing corporate selfishness through which we’re all wading now. Putting Number One first is now the expected norm and the ideals of selflessness that inspired post-war social welfare policies throughout western Europe are under attack.
I want to be living proof, though, that you’re never too old to Get Angry!
...will take place at 1100 on Monday 21 February, probably at Oliver’s in Grainger Market.
Bring a placard.
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