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Church is allowed to loan its Murillo painting — belatedly — to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

18 August 2017

© Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

New home: Ecce Homo (1660-70) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-82), now on display at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, by permission of St Anne’s, Oldland

New home: Ecce Homo (1660-70) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-82), now on display at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, by permission of St Anne’s, Ol...

THE Consistory Court of the dio­cese of Bristol granted a con­firma­tory faculty for a painting given to St Anne’s, Oldland, in 1959, to be removed and loaned to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

The painting, Ecce Homo, which has been attributed to the Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-82), was sold by Christie’s in 1904 for £23, on behalf of the estate of the late Frank Deacon (of Williams Deacon’s Bank). The auc­tioneer described it as being “of the highest quality”. It was sub­sequently purchased in 1958 and donated anonymously to St Anne’s in 1959, when it was valued at £250.

On 16 January 1959, a faculty was granted to introduce it into the church. In the petition for the fac­ulty, the painting was valued at £1000 for insurance purposes. In­­sur­ance was 7/6 per £100 for all risks including “vermin and depre­ciation”. The terms of security were that the church would be locked at night and that the painting was under glass and hung above the door to minimise the danger of vandalism.

The painting had had some publicity, and the gallery had a folio of photo­graphs which were said to “min­­imise the chances of a potential thief selling on the open market”. Dur­­ing the past century, the painting appeared in several ex­­hibitions, including at the Royal Aca­­­demy.

In 2012, there was a negotiated loan of the painting to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and the painting has remained there since then. No faculty for the removal of the painting from the church, or for its loan to the gallery, had been sought, however.

In August 2015, the PCC applied for a confirmatory faculty for the loan of the painting. The Chan­cellor, the Revd and Wor­shipful Justin Gau, asked for an explanation as to how it had happened that the painting was loaned to the gallery without a faculty. The gallery wrote, indicating that it had received the painting in good faith, and the PCC reiterated that the loan had been made in good faith.

The PCC said that, in 2011, it had noticed that the condition of the painting was deteriorating, and a decision had been made to loan it to the gallery. The gallery’s conservator noted active woodworm, blanching of the varnish, previous retouching, and a water streak. The woodworm and blanching indicated that the painting was suffering from a damp environment.

Since the loan, the gallery had car­ried out some investigation into the provenance and attribution of the painting, and had also under­taken some conservation work to the painting and its frame. The paint­ing was regarded as “a work of art of national significance” and, although its value could not be pre­cisely quantified, it was in excess of £100,000.

The reasons given by the PCC for its decision to lend the painting to the gallery were the cold, damp climate in the church, the un­­certainty as to its current value, and whether it would continue to be adequately insured under the church’s current policy, given the limited security available at the church; also, the fact that the paint­ing could be viewed at the gallery by the public in a way in which it would not be possible if it continued to remain in the church.

The costs of heating and remov­ing the humidity were pro­hib­itive for a small church. If the painting was valued at more than £100,000, church insurers would decline to cover it, and specialist art insurance was beyond the financial means of the means of the church. The cost of a proper security system was also beyond its means.

The PCC indicated that the church’s “style of service does not use paintings and objects” as objects of devotion to bring people closer to our Lord. Nevertheless, they agreed that, if a faculty was granted for the loan to the gallery, a high-quality copy of the painting would be placed in the church, and gallery staff would be invited to talk about the painting and its conservation.

The Chancellor made it clear that he accepted that all the parties in­­vol­ved had acted in good faith and with the best of intentions, and had apologised for their behaviour.

Taking into account all the cir­cum­­stances, including the wording of the original petition, the Chan­cel­lor granted a faculty for the paint­ing to be loaned to the gallery for a period of five years from the date of his judgment, 22 June 2017.

A high-quality copy of the paint­ing in a suitable frame must be provided by the gallery, with a plaque beside it setting out a brief his­tory of the painting. The arch­deacon will decide if the quality of the reproduction is suit­able to be in­­stal­led in the church, and determine the position of its installation.

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