News story

Taking the body of St Stephen overseas

A very large painted altarpiece painted by Benjamin West for the church of St Stephen Walbrook, London, has had a temporary export bar placed on it.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Altar painting of people carrying the body of St Stephen
Devout Men Taking the Body of St Stephen, Benjamin West (1738-1820)

A very large painted altarpiece, Devout Men Taking the Body of St Stephen, painted by Benjamin West for the church of St Stephen Walbrook, London, has had a temporary export bar placed on it to provide a last chance to raise the £1,756,873 needed to keep it in the UK.

Painted by one of the most critically acclaimed and professionally successful artists of the time, the painting is a brilliant example of shifting attitudes within the Church and in society at large. This is the last outstanding example of West’s religious paintings which could enter the public realm if matching funds can be raised.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey took the decision to defer granting an export licence for the painting following a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by Arts Council England. The RCEWA made their recommendation on the grounds that it was of outstanding significance for the study of British art in the second half of the 18th century, and of Anglican Church patronage of British artists in particular.

Devout Men Taking the Body of St Stephen is one of the first major commissioned works in the revival of religious painting in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Britain. While the lack of Church patronage is often seen as a defining feature of British art history, the 1770s saw new efforts to introduce painted decoration into Protestant churches. This painting demonstrates the shifting values within the Church of England at the time, and a new willingness to accommodate visual art in places of worship.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said:

This early example of a painter working on the grandest of scales for a major ecclesiastical commission is a tremendous painting, and I hope a UK buyer steps forward with an offer to acquire it for the nation.

The decision on the export licence application for the painting will be deferred for a period ending on 18 March 2014 inclusive. This period may be extended until 18 July 2014 inclusive if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase the painting is made at the recommended price of £1,756,873.

Further information

Published 19 December 2013