Chancellor allows sale of fragile painting

05 December 2014

BONHAMS

THE Rector and churchwardens of All Saints', Houghton, in Hampshire, were granted their petition for a faculty permitting the sale at auction of a painting believed to be of the "school of Albani", together with its carved wooden frame, because it would be liable to theft or deterioration if it continued to be hung in the church.

In 1921, Russell Smith offered the painting to All Saints', a Grade II* listed church dating from medieval times. The painting, Ecce Homo, is in the High Renaissance style of the late 16th or early 17th century. It depicts the blood-spattered figure of Christ in a red cloak, attended by three angels.

In 1922, a faculty was granted for "the erection upon the north wall of the chancel of a picture by Francesco Albani", but for as long as people can remember it has hung on the north wall of the north aisle.

At no stage was the church architecture or interior adapted or altered to make any particular concession to the painting. No special niche was created for it, or spotlighting introduced; nor did the painting ever form the backdrop to the altar. It was left to hang on a wall in a position that was largely invisible to those sitting in the nave, or to the casual visitor.

In December 2012, the DAC was advised that the painting might be valuable, and it was removed to the premises of the auctioneers Bonhams, in London, for expert advice and protection. Experts who examined the painting said that, because of its condition and over-painting, it was difficult to come to any certain conclusions about its authorship. It was thought to be from the studio of Albani rather than by him, although he might have participated in some of it.

The PCC emphasised that it was not seeking to sell the painting simply to raise funds. Its motivation was, the PCC said, that the painting was in poor condition, and would be expensive to restore, and, even if the funds for its restoration could be found, and it were rehung in the church, it would only deteriorate again. The PCC's view was that All Saints' was "not a suitable place to keep so fragile a painting which could be better preserved and secured elsewhere".

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The law on the disposal of movable property within a church is that the jurisdiction to grant a faculty should be "sparingly used", and that "special reason" needs to be established before a faculty is granted.

The Chancellor of the diocese of Winchester, Christopher Clark QC, said that if the painting were returned to its previous position, it would be liable to theft and deterioration. The PCC believed that the church should be kept open during the day. The painting would thus be a security risk, and that would result in high insurance premiums. The painting would also be subject to vagaries of temperature, which could be avoided if it were to hang in an art gallery, or a public or private collection of paintings.

The Chancellor said that all those factors had satisfied him that the faculty should be granted. The sale would not result in harm to the significance of All Saints' as a building of special architectural or historic interest.

The ordinary presumption in faculty proceedings was in favour of things as they stood, but the petitioners had rebutted that presumption. The justification for carrying out the sale was clear and convincing. The benefit to the church from carrying out the sale outweighed any harm to the significance of the church.

The painting was sold at auction at Bonhams for £18,750.

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