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Painting women back into history in County Durham

An ambitious and wide-ranging arts project has brought artists and young people from Bishop Auckland together to uncover the stories of a group of women, who have spent the best part of 4,000 years going unnoticed.

The Missing Women project was inspired by Francisco de Zurbarán’s celebrated series of paintings, Jacob and His Twelve Sons, which have hung in Auckland Castle’s Long Dining Room for more than 250 years.

While much is known about those portrayed in the collection of epic biblical paintings (Jacob. Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin), the lives of the women who lived with them have gone largely unrecorded.

It is the stories of these five ‘missing women’ that have provided the foundations of the six-month project - devised to look at the idea of giving these women a voice and provide more than 60 young people with the opportunity to work with arts professionals to explore themes and methods of self-expression.

Missing Women will culminate in a series of four engaging exhibitions, which will open across Bishop Auckland, in County Durham in March – starting on International Women’s Day (March 8).

Each of the professional artists (Jilly Johnston, Lady Kitt, Leanne Pearce, Lizzie Lovejoy and Edwina Kung) have been commissioned to paint a life-size portrait of one of the women: Leah and Rachel (sisters to each other, cousins to Jacob as well as being his wives); Zilpah and Bilhah (potentially half sisters to Leah and Rachel, their servants and Jacob’s concubines); and Dinah (the daughter of Leah and Jacob).

The portraits will be exhibited at both Auckland Castle and Bishop Auckland Town Hall between March 8 and May 28.

Twice Sky Portrait Artist of the Year participant, Gateshead-based Leanne Pearce has painted Dinah, who was raped at the hands of Shechem, a Hivite prince, prompting her brothers to seek vengeance on every man in the city of Shechem.

Leanne said: “I indulge my passion for painting most days and I am motivated by making artwork which I deem to be useful and significant, in work I refer to as 'Portraits with Purpose'.

“I want to reveal truths and a deeper understanding of human experiences, in particular highlighting women's work. It has been an honour to be able to give a presence to Dinah in The Missing Women Project.

“Initially it was challenging to hear the story of her rape, but I was glad to be able to allow her to take up the space within the large scale portrait she deserves, which will be exhibited alongside the paintings of her brothers”.

Jilly Johnston is painting Leah. She said: “It’s a privilege to paint a ‘matriarch’ of the Old Testament and literally paint her back into the history of the Zurbarán series, in the Castle and into a story where she belongs.

“We hope that this will make visitors think about other people who do amazing things, have a story to tell and get ‘written out’ of history like Leah. I’m going to enjoy seeing her framed and placed into Auckland Castle for International Women’s Day.”

Since November 2022, the Missing Women creative team have been working with five community groups in the Bishop Auckland area to ensure the missing women are no longer forgotten and are recognised on a platform like the men in their family.

Young people from St John’s Catholic School, Parkside Academy, Ash Green Way Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Site, Auckland Youth and Community Centre and a group of young parents have been taking part in the project.

During the development phase, they visited Auckland Castle to see the Zurbarán paintings in context and The Auckland Project’s Spanish Gallery, which itself was created to contextualise the Zurbarán series.

The young people’s self-portraits will be displayed alongside the portraits of Dinah, Zilpah, Bilhah, Leah and Rachel in Bishop Auckland Town Hall from March 8 to May 13. They will also curate and organise a wider exhibition about the Missing Women project itself, which will be displayed in The Auckland Project’s community venue, No.42 (March 8 to May 28).

Kate Gorman, Creative Producer, of Missing Women, said: “It has been hugely rewarding to see the engagement of the young people with the project and to hear what they have to say – and to provide a platform for them to be able to say this loud and clear.

“Their creativity and insight has been phenomenal throughout the project.”

Missing Women is a collaborative project led by Creative Youth Opportunities, The Auckland Project and Bishop Auckland Town Hall. It has been funded by Arts Council England, County Durham Community Foundation and Art Fund.

Michelle Harland, Managing Director, Creative Youth Opportunities, said: “Missing Women has been a wonderful opportunity for us to work with young people with a breadth of life experiences and use art as a tool for them to develop new knowledge and skills and for their self-awareness and confidence to flourish.”


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