Church of England to sell important Benjamin West?

May 16 2013

Image of Church of England to sell important Benjamin West?

Picture: British Museum

Here's a story you're likely to hear more of in the coming weeks... A well-informed reader writes:

The Church of St Stephen, Walbrook, in the City of London owns an impressive 5.6m x 3.2m Benjamin West altarpiece depicting "Devout men removing the body of St Stephen" [shown above in print form]. Commissioned for the church by a rector committed to promoting English art through church patronage, and unusual both for its scale and choice of subject, the painting is of international significance.

The painting was illegally removed by St Stephens in the 1980s when the building was (controversially) reordered [a new altar was installed], it has been in storage ever since. The PCC [Parochial Church Council] are now in consistory court hoping to obtain permission to sell the painting abroad for a seven figure sum. The case in favour of removing the picture is that it apparently doesn't suit the building, and that the massive price tag will pay for necessary repairs. The sale has been opposed by the London Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches, and by the CofE's Church Buildings Council. The outcome of the hearing is not yet certain.

The attempted disposal of this picture seems to be wrong on a number of levels, but then readers who remember the Bishop Auckland/Zurburan debacle will know that the Church of England is skilled at handling such cases ineptly. The potential buyer is one of America's leading institutions. I'm not aware of any attempt by the Church of England to find an English home for the painting. I'm told that the consistory court has recently finished its hearings, and the decision will be announced soon. If a sale is agreed, then the picture will, of course, have to go through the usual export procedures. 

Update - a reader writes:

I don't have anything in particular to add to this story but I am glad that you are covering it. I remember the painting hanging on the north wall as a child in 1970s. At the time of the restoration I was hopeful that it would return to it's former position over the altar. After it disappeared I periodically visited the church and asked about it, to the obvious irritation of the former rector,  Chad Varah (who apparently hated the painting) and gave me various evasive answers: 'It's being restored', 'The church is selling it'.. I was reassured that this could not happen without permission by the Friends of the City Churches. I have never understood why the church has not used it as a way of attracting visitors, particularly Americans, who might sponsor its restoration; the City of London is in any case awash with money. It should remain in the church but it also occurs to me that there could be an arrangement with the Guildhall Art Gallery nearby, which owns Copley's vast painting of the Siege of Gibraltar, with regard to the American connection. 

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