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Anglican court says Benjamin West altarpiece can go to Boston

City of London church to sell the masterpiece to fund repairs

An 1809 print showing the West altarpiece in situ. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Church of England court has ruled that Benjamin West’s altarpiece, Devout Men Taking Away the Body of St Stephen, 1776, which was made for one of the most important churches in the City of London can be sold for display in the US. The $2.85m painting is being bought by an anonymous foundation, which is due to lend it to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (The Art Newspaper, April 2013, pp6-7 and June 2013, p3). West was born in America, but worked in England.

In his judgment, delivered on 10 July, Judge Nigel Seed, chancellor of the consistory court of the Diocese of London, ruled that St Stephen Walbrook should be allowed to sell the masterpiece. The painting had been removed from the church in around 1987, in what he described as “perceived illegal actions”, and has since been kept in storage.

Judge Seed was critical of “unlawful actions” taken by two priests at St Stephen Walbrook: one who had originally hung the picture in 1776 without “faculty” approval from the Church of England and the second who had removed it in around 1987, again without the necessary permission. He said: “This 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.”

St Stephen Walbrook was rebuilt in 1679 by Christopher Wren after it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. In 1776 the West painting, which had been commissioned and donated by the priest Thomas Wilson, was installed behind the altar. But Judge Seed said that Devout Men Taking Away the Body of St Stephen was hung without the necessary faculty permission. He said that the painting “severely compromised the integrity of the Wren building in scale, visual appearance and by the damage to the original fabric”. In around 1848 the painting was moved from the east to the north wall.

In around 1987, the picture was removed while major work was being done to repair the building and a new marble altar by Henry Moore was being installed. The then priest (who is not named in the judgment, but was the late Chad Varah, the founder of the Samaritans) intended to sell the altarpiece to raise money for church funds. However, the painting was removed without a request for faculty permission, rendering the move illegal under canon law. The consistory court then went on to consider whether St Stephen Walbrook now has legitimate financial grounds for selling the painting.

Judge Seed concluded: “I am 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 faculty application to allow the sale of the West was opposed by the Church Buildings Council, an Anglican statutory body. The council argued that the painting had been commissioned as an altarpiece from a leading artist, it depicts the church’s saint, and it should be returned from store and put back on display.

The Church Buildings Council is now considering an appeal. In a statement, the council says it is “deeply disappointed” by the judgment. It is concerned about “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”.

A UK export licence application will now be submitted for Devout Men Taking Away the Body of St Stephen. Following conservation, it will be installed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at the entrance to the Art of the Americas Wing. A museum spokeswoman says that the West will create “a spectacular link between paintings of the new world and the old”.

More from The Art Newspaper


10 Oct 14
17:42 CET


Yesterday (October 9th,2014) after completing my research in the Print Study room of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I enquired as to the whereabouts of this great Altar piece by Benjamin West, I was directed to a conservation studio on the first floor of the museum. There behind a plate glass wall was the painting undergoing the first stages of a year long conservation programme. Although I was deeply saddened that such a great work specifically painted by Benjamin West for St. Stephen Walbrook had left our shores, at least the MFA in Boston is treating it with great care and respect, such as it deserves and which it was not afforded by the Anglican Church in London. The American wing at the MFA is utterly magnificent and it will be given pride of place once it and its original architectural frame which I also saw in the conservation studio are reunited.

22 Jul 13
15:14 CET


This is so short-sighted. Selling off part of the history of the church to fund repairs to the church seems to me like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I hope an export stop is put on it.

17 Jul 13
2:48 CET


Even though it was not part of Wren's original fitting up of the church in the late 17th century this is an early fitting specifically commissioned for the church and I suspect looks more in keeeping there than the Henry Moore altarpiece. Why not sell that instead to raise the funds?

15 Jul 13
4:26 CET


At least it is headed for an honorable home

15 Jul 13
4:33 CET


This is completely outrageous. A decision of this sort shouldn't be left to a judge with no understanding of art. This is a incredibly rare example of an English baroque altarpiece, and even more rare, it was painted to a specific place in this church, the canvas shaped accordingly. It belongs here as much as Bellini's altarpieces belong in the Venice churches for which they were painted.

15 Jul 13
4:33 CET


In 1997 the contents of St Stephen Walbrook were catalogued by the NADFAS church recorders, curiously the painting by Benjamin West is not on their list. Why did the Church of England authorities condone the 1987 removal? Judge Seed states that the painting was hung without a faculty, but he must be aware that the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved has the power to grant a restrospective faculty. What is the historical significance of this painting, which was created in 1776? How might this careless disposal influence the intentions of future donors to Anglican churches?

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