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Faculty permits sale of paintings

19 January 2024

Church Buildings Council objects, but the artworks are not treasures, says court

Sue MacDonald

Reclining Magdalene, after Pompeo Batoni

Reclining Magdalene, after Pompeo Batoni

DESPITE the Church Buildings Council’s (CBC’s) objections to the proposed sale, the Consistory Court of the diocese of Leeds has granted a faculty permitting the sale of two 19th-century paintings that had been stored for several years in St Thomas the Apostle, Killinghall.

The paintings are Reclining Magdalene, after Pompeo Batoni, which had been donated before 1985 by a local family, and Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist, after Andrea Schiavone, which had been donated by Canon Elliston, possibly in the 1940s.

The CBC advised against the sale, and said that both paintings had a connection to the church and contained religious subject matter; they reflected the continued use of the church and the dedication of the parishioners over many decades. The paintings were now in poor condition, partly because of the storage conditions.

The CBC encouraged the conservation of the paintings, and their retention in the church, or, at the very least, their storage in suitable conditions. Although the paintings might not be to current taste, the CBC said, there might come a time when the parish wished to conserve and display the paintings.

The CBC would discourage the sale of items merely on the grounds that they appeared surplus to requirements at the current time.

The incumbent and churchwarden who had petitioned for the faculty regarded the CBC’s stance as unrealistic. They stated that the church did not have the money to do anything other than continue to store the paintings as they had done since their removal from the walls of the church.

The PCC said that storage had resulted in further deterioration to the paintings, but the walls of the church were damp, and the paintings would not be in any better condition had they been hanging. The DAC said that, although it would usually support the CBC’s position and the presumption against the sale of church contents, in this instance the DAC’s view was that the paintings would be better served by being sold to someone with the means and motivation to conserve and display them.

Sue MacDonaldHoly Family with Saint John the Baptist, after Andrea Schiavone

The CBC also pointed to the strong presumption against the disposal of “church treasures”. That term had been defined by the Court of Arches to mean “articles of particular (or special) historic, architectural, archaeological or artistic interest, falling within the faculty jurisdiction”.

The Chancellor, the Worshipful Mark Hill KC, said that care must be taken “to differentiate between the disposal of church treasures, properly so described, and the disposal of church property generally”. The two paintings had been valued at £120 to £150 each. The Chancellor said that that “financial value militates against them being church treasures as such, although monetary worth can never alone be determinative”.

The CBC had categorised both paintings as treasures, apparently on the basis of a connection with the church and the religious subject matter. The Chancellor said, however, that, having “reviewed all the information before the court”, he did not consider that either picture was properly categorised as an article of special historic, architectural, archaeological, or artistic interest; nor should they be classed as church treasures.

It was rare for the advice of the DAC and the CBC not to coincide, and the court had to consider the dissonance with great care. The Chancellor concluded that he preferred the advice of the DAC to that of the CBC. The DAC’s local knowledge and pastoral concern gave it “an advantage over the more distant desktop assessment carried out by the CBC under its delegated advice policy”, the Chancellor said.

The paintings had a very modest value, and their real connection with the church was tenuous. There were no local objections to their sale. They had been stored for several years, and were unlikely ever to be put on display. They were deteriorating, and would continue to deteriorate even if hung on the walls of the church.

There seemed to be “no reason to retain them, and every reason to dispose of them to a collector or restorer”, the Chancellor said. A faculty was granted for the sale of the two paintings.

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