Curious judgement allows church to sell $2.85m painting.

July 12 2013

Image of Curious judgement allows church to sell $2.85m painting.

Picture: TAN

Some time ago I mentioned the case of a large painting by Benjamin West, which used to hang in a church in the City of London, St Stephen's Walbrook. In about 1987 the church removed the painting, and has been seeking permission to sell it. It has been locked away in storage ever since. A recent Church of England court judgement means they are now able to, and it has (reports The Art Newspaper) been bought by an anonymous foundation for $2.85m. It will be loaned to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

I've obtained a copy of the judgement, given on 10th July, by His Honour Judge Nigel Seed. Much of it is based on some very strange logic. Here's the conclusion:

'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 Boston.'

Let's look at the judgement in a little more detail. First, Judge Seed said that the original installation of the painting, in 1776, was 'illegal', because the then parish priest, Thomas Wilson, did not get the necessary 'faculty permission' to place it in the church. Consequently, although its removal in 1987 was also done without 'faculty permission', it was not removed illegally, because 'legally' the picture was never there. Judge Seed seems to think that in 1776 parish priests and the Church were as scrupulous in observing bureacracy as they are today. I bet you, however, that if I were to pick at random ten objects that have been installed in churches in the 18th Century or before, many of them would have been placed there ' illegally' under current church rules.

Secondly, Judge Seed was convinced that putting the West painting into the church was:

'to the detriment of the interior and so would its re-introduction be.'

Now this is a purely aesthetic argument, hardly one for a court of law, and although Judge Seed was right to say that West's painting interrupted Wren's original design, I can't see that that is a reason to remove the picture. Otherwise we'd have to remove anything installed in a church after the original building was made. All those pesky memorials in Westminster Abbey, breaking up the architect's original gothic vision? Take them out!

Then we come to the question of whether Benjamin West was any good, and by extension, whether the painting is any good. The judge was apparently impressed by the evidence of Mr Andrew Wilton FSA, of Tate Britain, that;

...few would regard [West] within the pantheon of great British artists. [...] that several founder members and past presidents [of the RA] have been forgotten [...] the picture in question is not one of the great works of British art and it is an intrusion in the church of 100 years later.

Here's the thing about the painting in question though - nobody really knows what it looks like. This blog and other outlets have not been able to publish a reproduction of it, because none is available. We have to make do here with a print. I find it curious that a picture can be disregarded as a forgettable work of art, when the wider public and art historical community has hardly had a chance to study it, and yet we are asked to accept that it is important enough to be displayed in one of America's finest museums with a $2.85m price tag. For all I know, the picture could be West's lost masterpiece.

Then we come to the question of why the picture should be allowed to leave not just the church, but the country. Judge Seed says:

'no location is available within the City of London. [...] I am satisfied that it would be seen and appreciated by more people [in Boston] than it would in St Stephen Walbrook. I am also satisfied that from a curatorial point of view a picture would be better cared for and maintained there than in the church.

Whoa, hold on Judge! Are we to accept that a painting should automatically go on display in the place where the most people would see it? And isn't it a bit odd to compare a church in the City of London with one of the most popular museums in America? Isn't there a halfway house? Tate Britain, perhaps? 

But wait, Judge Seed isn't bothered about any UK national heritage argument. Noting the sale of a Benjamin West altarpiece from Winchester Cathedral to the Wadsworth Atheneum in 1900, the judge says 'the precedent of an English church selling a religious picture by West to an American art institution was set then and not by me now.' On that basis (to pick a current example), because Catherine the Great was allowed to buy countless Rembrandts, Rubens and Van Dycks from Houghton Hall in 1779, it's ok to let any work of art leave the country now.

Update - a reader writes:

The Benjamin West is very cheap at under $3 million, as it's such an important painting for the City of London, wouldn't it be good if the Guildhall art gallery bought it, it can't be exported without a licence, so there can be no excuse.

Josh Spero, editor of Spears Magazine, tweets:

Why so vehement. Can't the church sell its property? It flogs deconsecrated churches.

But not overseas, Josh.

Update II - another reader writes (vehemently):

St Stephen Walbrook was listed Grade One in 1950; even if the late Chad Varah [the then priest] had applied for a faculty in 1987, English Heritage (or the 1980s version) might have objected as the painting had already been part of the decorative fabric of the building for two hundred years; during that period, no one seems to have raised the matter of any 'missing faculty'.  I am uncertain if English Heritage have any jurisdiction over the C of E, but this story stinks. 

Bugger Boston, the picture survived the Blitz and should stay in Britain.

Update III - a reader observes that the West painting is not the only interloper in Wren's church:

If the painting's removal is based upon it's stylistic and aesthetic incongruity within a purely architectural context, then why is Henry Moore's slightly deflated modernist marshmallow [the altar, officially, 'Circular Altar, 1972'] allowed to remain in situ slap bang under the stunning coffered dome and passing itself of as an altar of sorts? West's painting would surely have a stylistic consanguinity closer to the blend of classicism and the baroque that inspired Wren?

And on that Henry Moore altar, another reader notes that the lack of 'faculty' for the West painting need not matter:

Judge Seed should not have attached significance to the apparent lack of a faculty for installation; the Church of England's Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved (founded 1963) has the power to grant a restrospective faculty. It did so for the Palumbo-Moore altar at stephen walbrook.

Another reader comments on the 'illegality' of the original West installation, and notes that:

[...] the Vestry’s thanks in 1814 seems to indicate that they had accepted the gift by conduct. And although I’m no expert in church law, one would have thought that estoppel would come into play. But if the judge is right, isn’t the logical conclusion that the church cannot take the proceeds?

Good point - if the picture was, as the judge says, never 'legally' installed, then surely it is not the church's to sell. The judge did indeed reserve judgement on this point, and it would be an appropriately ironic end to the case if the Church was compelled to give its windfall to, say, the heirs of Thomas Wilson, the rector who commissioned the painting from West.

Another reader despairs:

I am shocked although not surprised by the judgement. As The Art Newspaper points out, it could set a dangerous precedent for other less wealthy churches which want to raise money by selling their treasures. As a rare example of a Protestant altarpiece from this era, in its original setting if not location, the painting should be celebrated and I think it is disgraceful that an expert was brought in to denigrate Benjamin West and thereby the need to keep the painting in this church. If all paintings in British churches were subjected to judgements on the nationality of the artist, the quality of the work and their compatiblity with the architecture, we would have almost nothing left. As I mentioned before, it would have seemed appropriate to link the Benjamin West with J.S Copley's Siege of Gibraltar in the Guildhall Art Gallery, perhaps by shared ownership with the church.

 Clearly the church authorities don't like it or want to keep it and will never reinstate it over the altar. But they seem to have forgotten that in 1987, the Henry Moore altar was installed by overturning a decision of the London Diocesan Consistory Court, and it can in no way be said to represent Wren's original intentions, so hopefully will also be sold to the States in a few years time.

Update IV:

An alert reader tells me that the picture was offered for sale at Sotheby's London in November 2001, with an estimate of just £50-£70,000, but was withdrawn before the auction. A colour illustration can be found in the catalogue, and a black and white is available in the Staley & von Erffa catalogue raisonne of West's works.

Update V - a reader sees the matter in a more profound light:

The church was built for the parishioners to worship the glory of God and the gift of the painting was a show of worship too.. Can worship now be sold?  Apparently yes.!

Update VI - I'm told that the petitioners against the removal and sale, including the senior counsel, were all acting on a pro bono basis.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.