JONATHAN RUFFER Angel of the North

The Road to Bishop Auckland

THE GUARD IS up at Bishop Auckland Castle, and I wish I was talking soldiers but I’m not. I’ve come to meet the very likeable philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, who whilst warmly welcoming me to his Lodge in the castle grounds, also apologises for his hesitant, considered – and yes, guarded – answers. 

Ruffer, 69,  is a devout Christian and city investor whose enormous wealth – and drive – and faith – have single-handedly reimagined the fortunes of the historic centre of Bishop Auckland in County Durham. Faith and art have both played their role in this journey but he doesn’t, he says, want to be seen as a teacher, hence his guard. ‘I’ve spent all these years building my life around how art dovetails into deep things of our lives,’ he says but apologises: ‘I’m allergic to trying to tell you things that would be helpful to you and your readers because that immediately holds you out as a teacher… like Paul says, be careful if you feel called to being a teacher as you’d be judged to a higher standard.’

I don’t find Ruffer particularly teachy or even preachy at all, instead he’s thoughtful, humble, precise (a former barrister) and occasionally mischievously funny. His entire project at Bishop Auckland is devotional and almost liturgical. Personally, I find his ongoing achievements moving. It’s a story ever evolving, there is energy all around the whole Bishop Auckland set-up (now called the Auckland Project) with multiple museums, galleries and lavish shows. I have asked him is he creative? ‘I’m very uncreative.’ Yet he has reimagined this small historic town – once the fiefdom of the Prince Bishops of Durham – to be a leading cultural hotspot focusing on local economic recovery. That is literally and metaphorically a creation. Contemporary Bishop Auckland, affectionately called Bishop by the locals, is a place of some decline, a small washed-up mining market town whose history and once attractive, thriving, historical town centre – castle, church and 150 acre 900-year-old-estate – was intrinsic to the ecclesiastical and political power history of the North East. When in 2011 the Church Commissioners who owned the historic centre lock stock and barrel – and clearly not giving a cultural damn about their own treasures – tried to sell off the collection of 17th-century Francisco Zurbarán paintings of Jacob and his twelve sons, Ruffer stepped up and bought them. When he tried to give them back to the Church and they said they didn’t want them, he reluctantly bought the castle and the estate. And the journey began.

“Why does beauty matter? I have asked him: ‘If you start on the basis if it exists  – it matters, then that’s right. This is another iteration of something that’s bigger than yourself. It’s difficult to get through life without finding something that confronts you with your smallness”

Jacob and his twelve sons © The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust
Jacob and His Twelve Sons
c. 1640-45  Oil on canvas
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust

It’s an exceptional human narrative, he has done it and is doing it through faith and art – the power of beauty. It’s a vision, I say, and yet he says carefully: ‘I don’t really do visions. The observation I have is that the common thread of things that change people – is the confrontation with things that are bigger than yourself and it seems to me that great art is central to that. It’s always fascinated me…  Why do beautiful women get beaten up by ghastly men? I think it’s because beauty is such an invasive, powerful thing as far as a luddite bloke is concerned – she’s picked a fight, just by being beautiful…’ That’s the dynamic?

‘That is a dynamic… a picture on a wall can’t pick a fight because it has no dynamism in the physical sense… but our lives get changed…’

Ruffer says he came to art late in life and that for him art is a learned behaviour but now he is ‘toothsome’ about it – but reading between the guarded lines just as he says great art changes lives, I’d say art changed his life – and like his faith – the two have run together as a narrative weaving their way to Bishop Auckland. Arguably the dark brooding Zurbaráns got him here, and extended that conversation for him – about the role of aesthetics, his personal relationship to paintings, the power of beauty to raise consciousness. After all, he’d long started his private art collection before Jacob came along and mostly, he says, the Baroque which is a favourite.

“Like his own personal religious narrative, the art he loves reflects the big spiritual story that is his, the truths of Christianity”

I’ve read that he only collects Spanish art from the Golden Age but this isn’t true as he says he has an equal rating of Italian, French and Spanish in his collection, and among that, religious scenes and portraits of saints dominate (not that difficult with Baroque). He offers to show me around the art collection he has in his home in Bishop and it’s immediately quite a sight as the bulk of the Baroque are hung European Salon-style, crowding together in rich, dark pigments and gilded frames, hugging the smart stairwell in his lodge. There’s an ascending, descending movement all around them (think of the paintings in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts that come to life as the children move past), angels and saints rise up the staircase in dark dramatic hues, a biblical kaleidoscope. The feel is luxurious and imagistic, an ecclesiastical narrative as well as an art collection. Ruffer’s face lights up taking me through them, the power of art you see, to shake us back into true selves away from guardedness; and among his own paintings I see the truer Ruffer, intellectually passionate, almost emotional, the painting changing his life in that second of recognition. There is a fine and vast Artemisia Gentileschi in lusty oils which he looks at with some reverence, and an exquisite startled Saint Bartholomew, but the ‘take out’ from this gallery tour (one of Ruffer’s favourite boardroom words) is that the intense humanity and deep warmth of the Baroque period possibly fulfills in him something of that spiritual inner need. Why does beauty matter? I have asked him: ‘If you start on the basis if it exists – it matters, then that’s right. This is another iteration of something that’s bigger than yourself. It’s difficult to get through life – without finding something that confronts you with your smallness.’

Does he have any abstracts? ‘I like the eyes either side of the nose…’ he says dryly but again, maybe that existential state-of-being stuff simply doesn’t cut it for Ruffer. Like his own personal religious narrative, the art he loves reflects the big spiritual story that is his, the truths of Christianity. ‘I’ve always had a vivid sense of the nature of God,’ he says, ‘And I think it stems from the fact that if I think that something is right to do, it does not cross my mind that it would be inconvenient, I don’t want to do it.  And I think those two things are completely connected; all my life I’ve done startling things, I’ve made decisions that have looked reckless. Because they’re done in obedience – then recklessness doesn’t come into it. You don’t think to yourself that looks sensible and that looks crazy. You don’t think adjectively like that. You just do it. I don’t attribute a very high degree of virtue to that, it’s just a characteristic.’ 

Mateo Cerezo (1637-1666), Ecce Homo
Image courtesy of a private collection.
Mateo Cerezo (1637-1666), Ecce Homo
Image courtesy of a private collection. On loan to the Spanish Gallery at The Auckland Project

Again this is big narrative stuff, a life disrupted – a very profitable life running his investment company – by revelation, and I’m not surprised that in the antechamber of his bedroom (yes he was truly generous with his private tour) hangs a modern painting by the contemporary Roger Wagner – ‘The Road to Emmaus’: the road winding long into the distance, a modern desert scene, Christ breaking bread on a slinky modern verandah. Interestingly, you can barely see the moment of recognition between Christ and his disciples but it is the road that leads your imagination, a metaphor for Ruffer if ever there was one; another road, another revelation, more faith journey, and who knows as Ruffer changes for bed each night, the road to Bishop Auckland. 

I am tempted to write that those who have had no experience of a religious or spiritual narrative simply won’t get Ruffer. As I understand him, he has been touched by God and leads his life in obedience – walking in faith – and it’s a big life although he talks about it in careful, considered boardroom paragraphs. And though he doesn’t do visions he does quiet, solid, no-nonsense unsentimental ambition based on something beyond – a message, a nudge, that drive.

“And call me romantic but I can’t help think that Ruffer has been directed quite purposefully to this most holy area of England, with its Anglo-Saxon and medieval monks and hermits peppered about the North East like sleeper cells of intense Christian spirituality”

‘It’s a funny thing,’ he says, ‘I don’t think of myself as somebody who gets direct messages but I certainly lead my life on the basis that I do. I think probably the distinction is that people who do have guidance from God, in my experience, tend to seek it. So that if they have out-of-ordinary life experiences, then they covet them.’

But he doesn’t?

‘I’m exactly the opposite, I’m ashamed of them. Because I’m thinking to myself, why did I need that? It’s a bit like only doing something when your mother shouts at you. Why didn’t she whisper? I think there’s an element – like you can be used on the castle – you can be used on guidance if you’re not secretly rather pleased with yourself.’

But arguably there are no whispers in Ruffer’s narrative. The calling to change his life first came at a Jesuit spiritual retreat in North Wales. ‘I went in 1994 for a spiritual wash and brush-up in St Beuno’s in North Wales, an Ignatian retreat house. I felt really quite hijacked by that; I’d seen it as quite a routine thing, but actually it turned out to be a game changer and I became aware that I needed to leave this company that I had set up. Which is not really something that you do, if you’re the captain of the ship, you’re rather expected to stand on the bridge and direct things…’ Hijacked is a big word to use and the Jesuits are tough spiritual masters. It was a silent retreat, he had a spiritual director. We are back to the winding road to Emmaus and the startled saints. Did he have signs or portents, did he have a dream like his Zurbarán’s Jacob, angels and ladders? His answer is more psychological. ‘In many ways I think you could call the retreat an extended dream. What you are is completely dissociated from everything else you know. What’s fascinating about it, is if you think of intercourse with other people, it mostly comes from talking to them, you quickly know if they are well educated or have a sense of humour, you quickly work out a framework in which you and I are with one another. What I found is that you still ended up knowing other people.’ 

So we’re talking about the mysteries of human relationships here, the strangeness of a silent retreat, the retreat into oneself, that journeyman aspect again. It sounds a bit – although I don’t want to put Ruffer on the couch – like a midlife or existential crisis. He was hijacked by the surprise answers he received in a heightened state of being brought on a silent retreat. As I’m pondering whether to ask him if this was a form of midlifer when inner truths tend to out, he says, ‘I have a batty thought we sort of know as Christians that this world is a training ground, a preparation for what will be, when, as our mothers would say when the wind would change and the expression on your face would stick… Heaven is like when the wind changes, and it depends what you are at that point.’

“Christ is all”

Juan de Juanes (c.1500-1579), The Holy Family. On loan to the Spanish Gallery at The Auckland Project
Juan de Juanes (c.1500-1579), The Holy Family
Image courtesy of a private collection. On loan to the Spanish Gallery at The Auckland Project

And maybe it’s that sense of the wind chasing him for yet another hijack that keeps Ruffer so energised on this project, for there is now an absolutely glorious sense of flow round Bishop. And call me romantic but I can’t help thinking that Ruffer has been directed quite purposefully to this most holy area of England, with its Anglo-Saxon and medieval monks and hermits peppered about the North East like sleeper cells of intense Christian spirituality – slowly crystallising the foundations of Christ in England – I’m thinking here not only of the Cistercians and the Benedictines but Saints Bede and Cuthbert, for example, just up the road in Lindisfarne and Jarrow, both buried in Durham Cathedral, to which Bishop Auckland is forever tied as it is the Bishop’s country residence; and clearly Ruffer, so invigorated by local ecclesiastical history, has paid tribute to this by using the same deep honey-coloured sandstone from the same quarry from which that haunting Norman Durham Cathedral was built for his sublime nearly completed Faith Museum (of which more later).  It’s even thought that Constantine was declared the first Christian Emperor while staying at Bishop, and Christianity officially the state religion of the Rome Empire. That’s some gig for a small town in the North East.

There are aspects of the project he simply calls ‘a millstone’. The entire building works – of renovation of the old – the castle, church, even the medieval walls –  would, he intimates, have shaken up another Captain. ‘When I came here the Bishop of Durham was Justin Welby and we shared a room for about 15 months. One of the things he said to me was – do make sure you don’t get brick fever; people who take on this sort of thing, they lose their cutting edge of faith and they throw themselves into making the thing nice.’ But not you?

‘Well I’m quite hesitant to say, ‘Oh God that’s why you’ve done it’ – but I do think I’m a perfect person to take this on because I have absolutely a visceral feeling because it’s fear not love or admiration, because it needs to be done not because it gives me pleasure.’ 

“He is a man of great soul who has experienced real quality of religious experience and inner drama: and so his love of Baroque painting with its no-nonsense narratives of  human drama and intensity – divine revelation – that tenebrous pigmentation and spiritual emotionality – like his own –  all conveyed in religious narratives, as a form of what the Jesuits would call, Imaginative Contemplation”

But is it really a millstone? (And as I’m asking this I can hear as I’ve heard throughout our meeting the constant construction work – building literally on Ruffer’s doorstep. He’s already said he’s had a very unlocky lockdown with builders arriving at the crack of dawn and everyday I imagine he negotiates scaffolding, diggers and yellow vests as he comes out.) 

I think again he’s speaking about the big emotions of life here. What makes humans human, including fine buildings and architecture, how in other words they – art, architecture, aesthetics – shape our psyche – not only Ruffer’s but expanding this whole project out, shaping up a town for a new generation. Raising the consciousness. ‘I think what I’ve found nonplussing in owning the castle and the grounds, it meant that our practical work had to centre round the creation of a visitor attraction. One of the things is that I’m frightened of good buildings because they just demand so much of you. I was born in 1951 and when I look at my childhood friends who came from a world of grown up houses what I can see is how many families had been destroyed – had to give up the house that the family had lived in for 500 years. That finished people off. Always something of great pleasure to me that I never came from a house that owned you. I saw this first hand this, it was like being taken out and shot. I thought isn’t it ironic that of all the things one can do with one’s later life, to take on something that’s a complete millstone.’

Millstones and hijacks, angels and saints. These are big things. It’s clear that Ruffer quietly runs the Auckland Project as a Christian social project as much as a personal spiritual one. In previous interviews he has referred to breaking a community’s ‘social haunting’ (a term used by sociologist Avery Gordon, where communities are disrupted from their heritage, and meaning stripped from their communities – in Bishop’s case this would be the decline of the mining community as well as having the Church of England asset-strip them of their Christian heritage). He may as well add collective imagination, ancestral memory, and collective psyche. He has established an art gallery for mining culture, planted 5000 trees in his 150 acre deer park, and bought the Binchester Roman Fort (again from the Church Commissioners) as well as bought out the Weardale Heritage Railway from an American consortium with a view to extending the line and restoring local vibrancy. More dramatically, he initiated an awesome son et lumiére-type night production ‘Kynren’ – which, with a cast of a thousand locals, tells the epic historical narratives of England. It is now one of the top tourist attractions in England. The new Spanish Gallery – to open in 2021 – will feature a permanent collection of Spanish art from the Golden Age to help place in context the Zurbaráns originally acquired by Bishop Trevor – including Velasquez and a striking El Greco crucifixion – more drama, more big theology, more divinity. More art. And there’s the brand new Faith Museum – which I’ll leave till last. But there is basically energy all around, and once Bishop is up and running as a place of international destination there will be no turning back. It’s a new – or newly branded – legacy. It’s certainly Heritage in action.

What about the old stuff, of which there is plenty – the old collection from Bishop Trevor’s time, he who originally got the fated Zurbarán 250 years before Ruffer. Ruffer believes, he says, in keeping paintings on their toes or else ‘they become Club bores’ and has initiated a ‘refreshing’ of the ecclesiastical collection of Bishop Trevor – of the apostles, founding fathers and the evangelists – by commissioning a famous Spanish ex-rockstar who is now a highly rated painter, to paint the evangelists. ‘The chap I’ve commissioned to do it is José Maria Cano. He’s reinvented himself. He’s now an ageing rocker. In the 70s and 80s he was the Mick Jagger of Spain to that generation. They all had their first snog to his banjo playing. He now only paints very difficult Ribera-style apostolados.’ (This is José de Ribera, the Spanish Baroque painter, and I note, a key propaganda painter for the Catholic Counter-Reformation campaign.) ‘It’s absolutely harking back to the Spanish Golden Age so it wasn’t as random as putting a Picasso look-alike up.’ 

It does seem to me that Ruffer’s emotional and intellectual connection, commitment and passion for Baroque is because – again I’m slightly putting him on the couch – that man of huge wealth that he is with a robust, considered mind – he is really a man of great soul who has experienced real quality of religious experience and inner drama: and so his love of Baroque painting with its no-nonsense narratives of human drama and intensity – divine revelation – that tenebrous pigmentation and spiritual emotionality – like his own –  all conveyed in religious narratives, as a form of what the Jesuits would call, Imaginative  Contemplation. (Interestingly on the St Beuno’s Retreat website they have a section titled Praying with Art – video essays specifically geared around art, scripture and Ignatian spiritual exercises by the Society Of Jesus priest Geoff Wheaton.) And in fact this bears out when I ask him about an entirely different type of painting, an enormous eighteenth-century George Barrett landscape – with a huge solitary oak tree – on his drawing room wall whilst we talk. Is it a favourite? Not really he says, it’s just such an absurdly large gilt frame which ‘would embarrass a Titian’. 

Architect’s impression of the Faith Museum
Architect’s impression of the Faith Museum
Architect’s impression of the Faith Museum
Image creation: Niall McLaughlin Architects. Courtesy: The Auckland Project.

So it’s the Baroque that gets him going; and hardly surprisingly, as the Baroque movement after all came out of the Catholic Church as aesthetic propaganda in the Counter-Reformation culture.

Perhaps the intense human drama in Baroque painting allies with his great compassion (in the Christian sense) and plain old sympathy and interest in people, in human beings or the Being part of being human. ‘I feed off people,’ he says, ‘It’s hard to know what the pathology of human relationship is, isn’t it…’ He seems to want to talk about the human condition and human intercourse a lot but falls back, gospel-like, on a parable: ‘When I don’t know what I’m thinking about I tend to grasp for an analogy and it seems to me we all start like potatoes dug out of a field and we end up in one of those modern things that peel potatoes; they don’t peel potatoes, what they do is simply throw them about in such a way that the potato is bruised and at the end of it has lost its outer layer;  and it seems to me that that is what really happens to us, we don’t really know the order of things, we start off naive and innocent and you end up having been roughed up by life.’

It can be no accident surely that it was Zurbarán’s Jacob that got him here – hunched and old man that Jacob is, his tribe around him – a narrative about calling, legacy and heritage and an example if ever there was one of his whirligig journey in his potato metaphor.

I ask him lastly exactly where he sits with his faith as I’ve read variously he is described as anything from a devout Christian to a committed Evangelical.

‘I have a much better sense of the emptiness of labels because I can’t understand them; so if you said to me what’s the difference between Baroque and Mannerist I simply haven’t got a clue. I can’t describe things, words and concepts that are useful. So I can see absolutely what it is to be a Christian and what I can see was that the Evangelical tradition was very strong on Truth;  now I think one of the clever things about God is that he or she created the twin excellencies of Truth and Love – and if you concentrate on either one, you lose the other. So if you’re a tree hugger and you think everything is lovely and everyone is fine, then actually the thing that goes by the board is Truth. But if you concentrate on Truth you lose the Love. I’ve always been a tree hugger and so I put myself into the hands of the Truth brigade because I always knew morally I would want to short change.’

“The observation I have is that the common thread of things that change people – is the confrontation with things that are bigger than yourself and it seems to me that great art is central to that”

And I stumble at this because like everything Ruffer says, it’s slightly hidden, guarded and needs a bit of interpretation. I think what he means is that spiritual emotion is never enough. I ask cackhandedly, ‘What role within that relationship would Christ have?’

His face softens, comes alive, no longer in the boardroom. ‘Christ is all.’

And there we have it, a confluence of faith, art and sacred intention travelling through one man’s imagination in the North East. God actively working in the world, with you, a collaboration. These are my words, not Ruffer’s, mind you, but you really have to visit Bishop to see the slow inspired transformation that will, if I’m being honest, probably take two generations to have the sort of impact that it could among the local people. He’s returned to them their culture, their theological heritage and aesthetics, often all at the same time in a painting. He’s brought them money too. He could have given them a multi-storey shopping experience for the same price, but they’ve already got that on the outskirts which killed the heart of the high street ten years ago. Instead he’s given them their culture back, a view back to the days when faith meant something and their
geographic area played a big role. So he doesn’t do visions but he does do grand liturgical gestures, cultural
fertility and Spirit.

So I leave Ruffer with an overwhelming impression of a good man, living a good life. I have to pass the Faith Museum on the way out. It’s almost finished, the scaffolding is down. It’s utterly beautiful – smooth stone slabs with no join, as mindful as architecture can get, the soul’s eye can wander over it and dream in, and you can’t help but have your spirit raised. Inside there are two levels for exhibitions but the main upper space is huge with a vaulted ceiling and cat’s cradle steel work echoing the vaulted oak beams of the tithe barns that it is based on – a perfect throwback to ecclesiastical history if ever there was one, the tithe barns being the medieval church’s tax collection point. The overall effect is calm and hallowed, more church than barn. Curators will soon fill it with artefacts representing the theological and religious cultural history of England and exploring the transformative power of faith in the British Isles.

But honestly? 

Really, truly, deeply – I think they should just put Jonathan Ruffer in it. I can’t imagine a better witness to the transformative power of faith than everything he has achieved in Bishop, his praxis being a witness to that which lies distant. A liturgical project if ever there was one.

Top image: 
Juan Bautista Maíno (1581-1649),  The Penitent Magdalene
© The Zurbarán Trust
On loan to the Spanish Gallery at The Auckland Project

NOV 2020 Sophie Lévy Burton MONK

4 thoughts on “JONATHAN RUFFER Angel of the North

  1. I feel privileged to do voluntary work with the Auckland Project. Mr Ruffer is a true inspiration.

  2. Thank you for this insightful article. I am full of admiration for Mr Ruffer’s profound sense of faith and beauty and his inspired, generous giving.


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