City of London church granted faculty to sell masterpiece: The Church of England Newspaper, July 21, 2013 p 7. July 18, 2013Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Church of England Newspaper.
Tags: Benjamin West, church art, Devout Men Taking Away the Body of St Stephen (1776), Diocese of London, St Stephen Walbrook
The Consistory Court of the Diocese of London has granted a faculty to St Stephen Walbrook Church to sell Benjamin West’s altarpiece, Devout Men Taking Away the Body of St Stephen (1776).
On 10 July 2013 Judge Nigel Seed, chancellor of the consistory court held the City of London parish may sell the painting for $2.85m painting to an anonymous foundation, which will lend it to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
St Stephen Walbrook was rebuilt in 1679 by Christopher Wren after it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. In 1776 the Rev. Thomas Wilson commissioned the painting from West, an American artist who had immigrated to England. The painting was installed behind the altar but moved in 1848 to the north wall of the church.
In 1987 the Rev. Chad Varah had the painting placed in storage while a new marble altar by Henry Moore was installed. The court noted the original display of the painting and its removal in 1987 had been done without a request for faculty permission. The court noted the case “if nothing else, is an object lesson of the consequences of incumbents behaving as though the church building is a sort of personal doll’s house for them to play with, without reference to the parishioners.”
When hung behind the altar, the painting “severely compromised the integrity of the Wren building in scale, visual appearance and by the damage to the original fabric,” it stated.
However the court said it was “satisfied that the petitioners have made out the necessary financial need to dispose of this painting, that any connection it may be said to have had to the parish was illegally established and to the aesthetic detriment of the church and that it should be sold to be displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.”
The Church Buildings Council had opposed the sale, asking that the painting be placed back on display. After the court handed down its decision, the Council released a statement saying it was “deeply disappointed” by the ruling and was concerned by “the precedent that the sale would create in 2013 for churches up and down the land, less financially secure than St Stephen Walbrook”, which may be “tempted to sell off their treasures for immediate gain”.