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Chancellor finds ‘justification worthy of weight’ on removal of wall paintings

07 June 2024

Consistory Court of the diocese of Winchester grants retrospective faculty

Creative Commons

The wall paintings behind the holy table in St John’s Marchwood, in 2010

The wall paintings behind the holy table in St John’s Marchwood, in 2010

THE Consistory Court of the diocese of Winchester has granted, in part, the retrospective faculty sought for the removal and storage of wall paintings that had, for more than 100 years, been behind the holy table on the eastern wall of St John’s, Marchwood. The paintings covered the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, which had been painted there.

The paintings were oil on linoleum, and had been in position since at least 1914 at St John’s, built in 1843, and been Grade II listed since 1987. They had been painted by the wife of the then incumbent, Charles Lambert Coghlan.

The current incumbent, the Revd Simon Hones, had had the paintings removed in 2019, after it was noticed that they were buckling, and that part of the decoration behind was visible. A faculty had not been obtained for their removal. Mr Hones and the parish secretary, Ann Brogan, applied for the retrospective faculty for the removal of the paintings, which were described as “temporary”. Their application was opposed by three parties opponent.

Chancellor Matthew Cain Ormondroyd said that the significance of St John’s as a listed building resided particularly in its architectural quality and the quality of its internal fittings, which were all listed as 19th-century originals.

The paintings that were the subject of the faculty also made a contribution to the significance of the church, the Chancellor said. Some historical significance derived from their association with Mrs Coghlan, since it was unusual to find the work of a female artist from that period in a church building. Oil on linoleum was also an unusual method of painting, and was of some interest. The paintings themselves were of good, although not exceptional, artistic quality.

There was some debate at the hearing about whether the paintings could be described as “temporary”. The Chancellor agreed with the parties opponent that it “does not make sense to describe as temporary paintings which have been in place for over 100 years and which had been a feature of the church for the majority of its existence”.

The congregation and PCC had since been consulted, and preferred the option of permanent removal and storage of the paintings. The main reason for that was aesthetic, in that the congregation and PCC preferred the appearance of the paintwork underneath the paintings to the paintings themselves, which were described as “dark and dull”. Those alleged benefits were strongly contested by the parties opponent.

The Chancellor said that it was “extremely unfortunate . . . that the paintings were removed without authorisation”. It had led to very poor treatment of the paintings, and had caused damage to them. The Chancellor was also “critical of the role played by Mr Hones”, who, “as a very experienced incumbent . . . should have known better and should have taken advice both on the operation of the faculty system and on the correct treatment of historic paintings before taking action. That advice was not hard to obtain.”

The Chancellor said, however, that Mr Hones had quite properly accepted responsibility for those failings, and it also seemed that he was under pressure from the congregation, who had “taken a dislike to the paintings”. It was accepted that Mr Hones was motivated by a desire to serve those to whom he was called to minister.

The Chancellor decided that, in view of the special interest of the church, and the contribution made to it by the paintings, their removal had caused harm to the significance of the church, although not harm that could be characterised as “serious”.

The first asserted justification for the removal of the paintings was described as “the will of the congregation”. The Chancellor said that the simple desire of an owner to change a listed building did not in itself amount to a clear and convincing justification.

It was also claimed that the church looked better without the paintings. That claim was disputed by the parties opponent. The Chancellor said that a claim of that sort could not justify the removal of historic paintings, and the “whole premise of a building being listed is that it cannot be altered according to changing tastes as to what looks attractive”.

In respect of four of the paintings, however, their removal would expose to view an earlier phase of decoration which seemed to fit in more harmoniously with the remainder of the east end. It appeared to replicate decoration from a very early stage of the church’s existence.

That was “a justification worthy of weight”, the Chancellor said, particularly since those four paintings could be stored in the church in a way that continued to allow them to be appreciated. In that way, contribution to the significance of the listed building could, to some extent, be preserved.

The faculty was granted for those four paintings to be removed, restored, preserved, and stored in the body of the church. The three other paintings were to be restored and reinstated.

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