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Churches may be stripped, CBC warns after ruling

19 July 2013

IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM

Unauthorised: the painting by Benjamin West (circled) in a 1941 drawing of the interior of St Stephen's, Walbrook, by Dennis Flanders

Unauthorised: the painting by Benjamin West (circled) in a 1941 drawing of the interior of St Stephen's, Walbrook, by Dennis Flanders

A RULING authorising a central-London church to sell an 18th-century painting could tempt other churches to sell off their treasures "to the highest bidder", Anne Sloman, who chairs the Church Buildings Council (CBC), has warned.

A judgment handed down on Wednesday of last week (see story below), in the Consistory Court, by the Diocesan Chancellor, the Worshipful Nigel Seed QC, granted a faculty to St Stephen's, Walbrook, to sell the painting Devout Men Taking the Body of St Stephen, by Benjamin West. The picture has been bought by an anonymous foundation for $2.85 million (£1.88 million), and will be loaned to the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, the website Art History News reported last Friday.

Judge Seed said that the painting compromised the integrity of Sir Christopher Wren's design of the building, and that the painting had probably been introduced to the church in 1776 without a faculty.

The CBC was party opponent to the faculty. Its legal counsel and witnesses acted pro bono. In a witness statement, Mrs Sloman said: "We understand the temptation for churches to sell off valuable works of art; but if such sales are given validity through success in even one or two instances, the parish churches of England could quickly be stripped of many of the treasures that make them unique."

The sale of the West painting would "have serious repercussions, and create an unfortunate precedent for any one of our 16,000 churches seeking funding for repairs, sending a message that the way is now open for them to dispose of the treasures they have inherited to the highest bidder", she said.

Speaking on Wednesday, Mrs Sloman said: "A lot of paintings were introduced in the 18th century without a faculty. Our concern is what is happening now, and in the future." The CBC had done "a huge amount", she said, to help churches address financial shortfalls, such as persuading the Government to increase the Listed Places of Worship Grant Scheme from £12 million to £42 million ( News, 18May 2012). But it was important for PCCs to realise that they were "curators, not owners".

Mrs Sloman said that the CBC would decide at a residential meeting later this month whether to seek leave to appeal against the ruling.

On Art History News last Friday, the art historian Bendor Grosvenor said: "If all paintings in British churches were subjected to judgments on the nationality of the artist, the quality of the work, and the compatibility with the architecture, we would have almost nothing left."

The Priest-in-Charge of St Stephen's, Walbrook, the Ven. Peter Delaney, declined to comment.

THE Priest-in-Charge and churchwardens of St Stephen's, Walbrook, have been authorised to sell a painting by Benjamin West, Devout Men Taking the Body of St Stephen, writes Shiranikha Herbert, Legal Correspondent. Their petition for a faculty was granted by the Worshipful Nigel Seed QC, the Chancellor of the diocese of London, in the Consistory Court.

The proposed sale had the unanimous support of the PCC, but was not recommended by the diocesan advisory committee. No objections were received from parishioners, the general public, English Heritage, or the local planning authority. The Church Buildings Council (CBC) was the party opponent to the faculty.

The present church was rebuilt by Christopher Wren after a 15th-century church on the site was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The foundation stone of the present church was laid in 1672, and the building was finished in 1679. For the first 100 years of its life, the church appeared as designed by Wren, and without the picture by Benjamin West.

The first mention of the painting was in the minutes of the Vestry meeting of 10 April 1776, which recorded the painting's being given to the church by the Revd Dr Thomas Wilson, the absentee Rector who normally lived in Bath. In order to install the painting, the original east window was bricked up.

The painting was not in good condition by 1814, and the artist undertook the cleaning and varnishing of it. By 1848, the painting had been taken down, and moved to the north wall. The church was the subject of reordering during the period 1978 to 1987, at which time the painting was removed to storage.

The main reasons why the petitioners applied for a faculty for the disposal of the painting were that it would not be appropriate to reintroduce it; that the church needed financial resources; and that the picture had been identified as the most appropriate asset to realise.

Having heard evidence from both sides, the Chancellor concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, the picture was introduced into the church without a faculty, and that its introduction compromised the integrity of the Wren building in scale and visual appearance, and by the damage to the original fabric in taking out and bricking up of the east window.

The evidence established, the Chancellor said, that Dr Wilson commissioned the work to hang above the altar, and that West painted it to hang there. So not only did the painting compromise the Wren concept, but the painting was compromised when it was moved to the north wall just 45 years after it had been cleaned and restored by the artist.

That move, the Chancellor found, was because the worshipping community did not want it where it had been installed, or at all, but they did not feel that they could get rid of it altogether. The Chancellor also said that, "whatever the merits of this painting, or Benjamin West as an artist", he had "a higher reputation and profile in the United States of America than he does in the United Kingdom, although he . . . did virtually all of his painting in Europe".

As a matter of law, the Chancellor said that he had no power to order the return of the painting either to a specific location, or to the church generally, although, if he expressed an opinion to that effect, the petitioners would be morally or honourably bound to return the painting into the church.

The petitioners' evidence was that, because of the nature of the reordering, the return of the painting would have a negative impact both on the appearance and layout of the church and its worship, in particular the eucharist, as the central altar brought things together under a central dome.

It was said on behalf of the CBC that the parish should not be allowed to "get away" with the illegal act of removing the painting from the church. The Chancellor said that, while he understood why the CBC might think that way, it was nevertheless "an unattractive way of thinking". These petitioners had behaved entirely properly in regard to the painting, the Chancellor said. The current parishioners were the "double victims of the high-handed and unlawful behaviour of previous incumbents".

This case was an object lesson of "[former] incumbents' behaving as though the church building was a sort of personal doll's house for them to play with", without reference to the parishioners or the authority of the Chancellor. Unfortunately, the Chancellor said, that attitude was not restricted to previous centuries, but was "still held by certain incumbents today". Eventually, as in this case, however, "the pigeons come home to roost, and subsequent generations have to bear the consequences and meet the costs."

The Chancellor said that it would be wrong "even for innocent parties to benefit from the illegal acts of others", but in this case the CBC was also seeking to benefit from an illegal act, as the introduction of the painting was. The original introduction of the painting was to the detriment of the interior of the church, the Chancellor ruled, and its reintroduction would be, too.

The faculty was granted for the painting to be sold for display in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The parish will not be entitled to the entire proceeds of sale, however, and the Chancellor will hear further submissions as to how the proceeds might be used for the benefit of the wider Church, as well as safeguarding the future of St Stephen's.

 

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