2011 Honouree: Jonathan Ruffer

Sometimes the impact of a single gift can send waves in all directions. In March of this year it was announced that the fund manager Jonathan Ruffer had agreed to pay £15m to the Church of England in exchange for a group of paintings by the 17th-century Spanish artist Zurbaran. But Jonathan had done this; it turned out, in order that his newly created Zurbaran Trust could give them back again. The news had many different people celebrating.

For art-lovers, it meant that the paintings, which depict the 13 sons of Jacob, would continue to be on public display together in Auckland Castle, where they have hung since 1756. For the church commissioners, the gift made it possible to expand their pastoral work across the region, without risking the Zurbarans on the open market. The news was also a tremendous boost to County Durham and the northeast as a whole, because it secured the future of the castle. Furthermore, Jonathan’s generosity allowed a plan to be prepared, with the help of the Rothschild Foundation and the National Trust, to run the castle as an arts and heritage centre – accessible to the public in a way that it has never been before.

Jonathan had not been a regular visitor to the castle, or even seen the paintings. So why, the Spectator asked him, did he decide to make such an enormous gift? His answer was refreshingly simple. “I was the only person in a position to do anything about it,” he said. “I happened to have £15 million. I wanted to do something for the north-east, where I come from. And I collect such paintings.”

In many ways, this makes the gesture all the more remarkable. As a collector of 17th-century religious painting – and indeed something of an expert on it – Jonathan could easily have kept the paintings for his own enjoyment. Yet his sense of purpose, his determination that the money he was spending should be out there doing good, has been obvious to everyone that worked with him on the deal.

“It’s really the first time that I’ve seen someone quite devotedly and intricately linking support for the arts with some wider social purpose,” says Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund. “I personally find that incredibly impressive, and actually almost breathtaking. It’s very easy to write off the arts as a luxury, but Jonathan is thinking about what lies beyond it.” Now, thanks to another donation, the Art Fund has been able to launch the Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grants programme. This will distribute £50,000 in each of the next five years, to make it possible for curators around the country to advance their knowledge and research.

Of course, it is not quite true to say that Jonathan himself has taken no pleasure at all from this expensive act of generosity. “The distraction of this job is being constantly fingered for money,” he says. “Now it’s just terrific to say that there isn’t any.”