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Auckland Castle
A stunning collection of Tudor art, and a priceless royal bed that was abandoned in a car park – Roz Tuplin speaks to Dr Chris Ferguson, Head Curator at Auckland Castle, about its first major exhibition for 2014
‘With such an array of exquisite items on show, many of them never before seen in the North East and some never seen in public, it's a promising start to the 2014 season at Auckland Castle’
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Praying Sculpture

It started with a bed – namely the Paradise State Bed, which is thought to have belonged to Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York. The bed was bought by Northumberland-based four-poster specialist Ian Coulson at an auction in Cheshire in 2010. It had been found, as everything seems to be these days, in a car park, and listed for auction as a 19th century Gothic revival. It set Coulson back just over £2,000. But experts believe it is in fact a significant Tudor artifact, and if so, it could be worth millions. 

The bed was offered to Auckland Castle Trust for loan, and from there, the castle’s new exhibition, The Power and the Glory, began to take form. The trust managed to secure a number of other early Tudor artifacts to complement their bed bonanza, some of which have never been displayed publicly before. Head Curator Dr Chris Ferguson explains, ‘We wanted to explore the early history of the Tudors and how they were using art and imagery as propaganda.’

The bed is naturally the centerpiece to the exhibition – a German oak four-poster protected by a Victorian-era varnish. Its most notable aspect is its triptych headboard which shows Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, making their marriage pledge. 'In the Tudor period the story of Adam and Eve is an allegory for the perfect marriage,' explains Chris.

That might seem quite odd, considering what happened to Adam and Eve. 'It's an image of fertility and fidelity, rather than being seen as a symbol of sin and death.' To be fair to the fabled first humans, they were, even if only through lack of choice, a committed couple. 'Both this and the other pieces in the exhibition are using religious imagery to reinforce the status of the Tudor dynasty,’ explains Chris. ‘So it's establishing that Richard III has gone, Henry is in control and their dynasty is going to last forever.' 

Possibly the only piece of furniture to survive from the Tudor palace at Westminster, the bed is undeniably a beautiful object, and the way it looks is very much a product of its period. 'This is pre-Reformation,’ Chris points out, ‘So it's really elaborate religious art.’ The value of the bed is partly due to being a precious survivor of the Reformation and an example of how religious iconography was used prior to the break with Rome.

Sadly, despite the beauty of its art, the early Tudor period is often overshadowed by the lusty exploits of Henry VIII and the religious turmoil during the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth I. But thanks to the other great car park discovery of recent times, the early Tudor period is suddenly in vogue – now we are taking such an interest in Richard III, his successor is part of that controversial narrative too. 'People are becoming more aware of that period now, but it's always been a bit overlooked,' says Chris. 'It's sad, because the stories are really interesting.' 

We should be particularly interested in this period here in the North East, as Auckland Castle had a vital role to play in its politics. 'Henry VII was putting all of his cronies and henchmen in positions of power and one of his key allies became Bishop of Durham,’ explains Chris. Bishop Fox was appointed to Bishop as a reward for loyalty, and from this power base he was able to push through key negotiations with Scotland that would change the course of history for the British monarchy. 'Fox was a key diplomat and general fixer. He negotiated peace treaties with Scotland and negotiated the marriage of Henry's daughter to the king of Scotland, which is how we end up later having a Scottish king.' 

As a general rule, though, Tudors are always a popular bunch, even if particular Tudors dominate the history channels. Why is that? 'I think it's because theirs is the period that portraiture really begins properly, so now we have an image in our minds for them. You think of Henry VII or Henry VIII and you can picture the Holbein paintings. You don't have that for earlier periods.' It's an explanation that makes perfect sense, and is supported by the fact that throughout the Richard |II revival there has been an obsession with recreating his face and making an image that people can stick in their minds. 'I think people like to have an image they can keep with them,' says Chris.

The priceless artifacts on show aren't limited to bedroom furniture either. 'We have two vestments, one given by Richard III to Westminster Abbey and one given by Henry VII. Embroidery doesn't survive very well at all, but this is all handmade velvet and hand-stitched embroidery and it's one of those things you don't realise until you're really looking at it the hundreds of hours of workmanship that had to go into creating them. We've also got a really wonderful statue of St Catherine that has been carved from oak in the 1490s. It's elaborately painted and she's a really arresting figure. It's the first thing you see when you come in the exhibition, and she's really beautiful.'

With such an array of exquisite items on show, many of them never before seen in the North East and some never seen in public, it's a promising start to the 2014 season at Auckland Castle. Chris has been thrilled with the reaction from the visiting public and wants the exhibition to set a benchmark for the prestige of future exhibitions. 'I think people are surprised these things are here,' says Chris. 'But it's a statement of intent of the level of material and the quality of art that we're going to be bringing to Bishop Auckland over the next few years.'

The Power And The Glory
Until 30th September, Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland
www.aucklandcastle.org

Published in: April 2014

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