A Prince of a Castle | Living North

A Prince of a Castle

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Auckland Castle
As Auckland Castle prepares to reopen later this year after a multi-million pound conservation scheme, we look at how layers of history have been peeled back to reveal one of the best-preserved bishops’ palaces in Europe
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Zany floral wallpaper, a spiral staircase, intricate carvings and a pair of 16th century serving hatches are just a few of the hidden secrets revealed by an exhaustive three-year conservation project at Auckland Castle. 

The 900-year-old castle, once home to the powerful Prince Bishops of Durham, closed in 2016 so that specialist conservators, including expert stonemasons, carpenters and historians, could return the Grade-I listed building to its peak 18th century glory. When the palatial property reopens to the public later this year, visitors will be able to experience what life was like when art collector Bishop Richard Trevor ruled the roost from 1752–1771 and when Bishop Shute Barrington created the Gothic state rooms during his tenure from 1791–1826. 

Bishop Trevor was perhaps best known for buying a collection of 13 paintings by Zubarán – known as the ‘Spanish Caravaggio’ – in 1756. The artworks, depicting Jacob and his 12 sons, have hung in the Castle’s Long Dining Room for over 250 years and will be back to the pride of place in the restored room when the Castle re-opens.

‘They are masterpieces in their own right,’ says Historic Buildings Curator Clara Woolford. ‘It’s remarkable that they’re in Bishop Auckland for people to come and see. It’s also interesting to note that when they were purchased, the Jewish faith was under a lot of persecution in this country, so it was quite a strong symbol of tolerance for a high churchman, like the Bishop of Durham, to put paintings of the Jewish patriarch in his most public room. It’s something we pick up as a theme throughout – that ability of the bishops to influence and change society.’

It seems appropriate then that the conservation project also includes a new exhibition space – the Bishop Trevor Gallery – which will host a rolling programme of exhibitions, displaying masterpieces on loan from national institutions and private collections.   

‘The gallery is in a suite that was originally built as Bishop Trevor’s private rooms,’ says Clara. ‘We wanted the gallery to feel like a gentleman’s apartment; like stepping into a connoisseur’s suite. Compared to the other rooms in the castle, this is a much more intimate space, where you can get up close and personal with some fantastic art.’

There are many castles of note in the North East, but Auckland Castle stands apart as the home of the Prince Bishops of Durham, who were gifted immense secular powers after the Norman conquest by the king to raise their own army, mint their own coins and maintain the law between the Tyne and the Tees. 

‘These men were secondary in terms of power only to the king,’ Clara explains. ‘They shaped the nation’s history. From that time until now, the Bishops of Durham still sit in the House of Lords and  represent the region. The current Bishop still has offices here, which means we are unique in being an ecclesiastical palace rather than just a castle.’

The conservation scheme aimed to stabilise the historic fabric of the building while recreating the interiors of the state rooms and private apartments designed by Bishop Barrington and renowned architect James Wyatt.

‘They turned a hotchpotch of medieval and tudor interiors into a suite of beautiful, elegant, early Gothic rooms,’ says Clara. ‘We’ve done a lot of research to recreate these rooms, including paint analysis, which told us what colour the walls were. It was important to us that we got the details right. In that respect, we were very lucky that there were many, many inventories of the interiors – as bishops moved in and out, they recorded what was in the castle.’

Among the historic highlights revealed by the conservation work is an old kitchen under the Throne Room, complete with serving hatches that, mysteriously, are ‘bricked into the wall in the wrong place, facing the wrong way’; a spiral staircase; painted shields behind cupboards; ‘zany floral wallpaper’ from the 1830s; and a James Lovell fireplace that had been covered with modern emulsion but has now been stripped back and repainted with its original distemper wash (a chalk pigment bound in animal glue).

Every stage of the restoration has been carried out with care and precision, including the conservation of the Great Stairs, which involved the removal of every spindle for numbering, cleaning, re-waxing and re-gluing.

‘This delicate mahogany, partially counter-levered staircase was used as the main point of access to the state rooms for hundreds of years, so was suffering from wear and tear,’ says Clara. ‘It now looks beautiful, back to how it should be as a really impressive focal point that’s stable for visitors to use. Hopefully, like the castle itself, it is now protected for another few hundred years.’

For more information about Auckland Castle – and the six other venues that comprise The Auckland Project – visit www.aucklandproject.org

Published in: July 2019

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