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Taking the body of St Stephen overseas

19 December 2013

A very large painted altarpiece, Devout Men Taking the Body of St Stephen, 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 British 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.

Notes to editors

1. Organisations or individuals interested in purchasing the painting should contact RCEWA on 0845 300 6200.

2. Details of the work are as follows
Devout Men Taking the Body of St Stephen
commissioned 1773, installed 1776
Benjamin West (1738-1820)
Oil paint on canvas
5670mm x 3180 mm (framed 6070x3580)

3. Images can be found here:

4. The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest is an independent body, serviced by Arts Council England, which advises the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on whether a cultural object, intended for export, is of national importance under specified criteria.

5. Arts Council England champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives. Between 2010 and 2015, it will invest £1.9 billion of public money from government and an estimated £1.1 billion from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country.

Contact information

Tamara Salhab
Tamara Salhab
Job Title
Media Relations Officer
Arts Council England
0207 973 6890
07712 854903