Indifferent to the wishes of founders and donors, schools, hospitals and monasteries are selling off furniture, art and buildings for financial gain.
Thursday, 9th August 2007
Redcar, on the north coast of what was and ever shall be the North Riding of Yorkshire, close to the mouth of the river Tees, has the charm of a faded seaside resort, but its only building worth mentioning is a house, Red Barns, designed by Philip Webb. However, a few miles inland is an architectural treasure, the little village of Kirkleatham, which has one of the best concentrations of Georgian buildings in England.
Its parish church, St Cuthbert’s, is a handsome Palladian building by Carr of York, but what dominates is the attached mausoleum built in 1740 and designed by James Gibbs at his most baroque. It is a grand octagonal structure with massive rusticated buttresses topped with scrolls and a pyramidal stone roof. Inside are fine monuments to various Turners, the greatest of whom was Sir William Turner, Lord Mayor of London in 1668, who was much involved with rebuilding the City after the Great Fire. Kirkleatham benefited from the wealth he made as a wool draper. He founded a Free Grammar School, which, as a building, survives as the Old Hall (it has a lavish baroque façade of 1708) and Turner’s Hospital, one of the grandest set of almshouses in England after the royal hospitals of Chelsea and Greenwich.
The hospital’s glory is the chapel (Fig. 4). Very possibly designed by Gibbs, this has a groin-vaulted, galleried interior like a fragment of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. Its apse has a Palladian window with glass by Sebastiano Ricci and, either side of the communion table, are a pair of elaborate gilded and upholstered chairs. Or, rather, were – for they have now gone off to Christie’s. The trustees decided to sell them and devote the proceeds to the inmates. Part of the glory of Kirkleatham Hospital is that it is still used for the admirable charitable purpose for which it was designed, but surely, as the chairs were original, they should be replaced by replicas.
Next to go, if Peter Sotheran, chairman of the trustees, has his way, will be the ‘gilt wood chandelier of great splendour’ that was given by Chomley Turner in 1747. As this costs £2,500 a year to insure, he considers that the money would be better spent on the purposes of the almshouses – it is not the job of the charity, he says, to care about historic buildings. Fortunately, the chandelier is a ‘fixture’ (unlike the chairs) and so its removal requires listed-building consent. Even so, the trustees have already had their offer accepted for a 1730s Dutch brass chandelier to replace it. But is there any point in insuring the chandelier, seeing that it is irreplaceable? Faced with huge premiums, many institutions have sensibly come to this conclusion. But what is most depressing is that this charity, like many others, seems only to be able to think in narrow terms; that is, it is only concerned with making efficient use of funds and not with the original donor’s intentions. Sir William Turner and his descendants surely also wanted the buildings they endowed to be ornaments to the district and to be enjoyed by their users. And in Kirkleatham, only the best would do.
I have dealt with the case of Turner’s Hospital at some length both because the chapel is a wonderful unaltered Georgian building whose full integrity is worth respecting for the benefit of Kirkleatham, Redcar and, indeed, all of us, but also because the action of the trustees is all too typical these days. In our modern culture, which elevates management and accountancy above aesthetics or a sense of history, so many institutions seem to regard works of art or craftsmanship merely as assets to be exploited rather than objects that further their purposes. What this really means is that the present cynically lives off the munificence and vision of donors living in more civilised times – but asset stripping can only go on as long as there are assets, and they are finite.
England’s public schools seem to be particularly philistine in this respect. Marlborough recently sold a Gainsborough, and Charterhouse its collection of antiquities. Did neither school consider that close contact with great paintings or Greek vases might be of educational benefit to the pupils, and that those who gave these things had this very purpose in mind? Then there is the diocese of Durham wanting to sell the Zurbaráns that have been in the Bishop’s Palace at Bishop Auckland for centuries. Parishioners often gave works of art to beautify churches and enhance the worship. If they had wished merely to keep the church in repair they would have given money. Yet the modern beneficiaries of such generosity try to sell these objects, if for the necessary aim of restoring the building. So St Paul’s, Brighton sold its Burne-Jones high-altar retable, and St Martin-in-the-Fields, its Rysbrack bust of its architect, James Gibbs.
Currently raging is a controversy over the future of Stanbrook Abbey (Figs. 1-3), a Roman Catholic Benedictine convent. Founed in Cambrai in 1623, the community moved to Worcestershire in 1838. The glory of the place is the church, designed in 1871 by E.W. Pugin. In 2002, the Prioress, Anna Brennan, decided to sell up and move to a smaller new monastery in the North Yorkshire Moors national park. This may seem to be simply yet another magnificent church for the Victorian Society to worry about. There are only 24 nuns left, mostly elderly, and the buildings – described by James Lees-Milne as ‘exceedingly grim penitentiary architecture of 1880’ – are no longer suitable for them.
But this is no ordinary convent. Stanbrook Abbey was in the forefront of the movement to revive Gregorian chant. It has its own printing press, with a distinguished history and in which Sydney Cockerell took an interest; there is a magnificent library of 50,000 volumes and an important archive, for Stanbrook has associations with George Bernard Shaw, Siegfried Sassoon and Iris Murdoch as well as with scholarly nuns, such as the late Dame Felicitas Corrigan. All this will have to go into store and will no doubt be dispersed in due course.
Nor are the reasons for the move wholly convincing, as the economics make no sense. Stanbrook Abbey is on the market for £6 million, assuming it can be converted into housing (for which the buildings are peculiarly unsuited). Yet the new monastery in Yorkshire is to cost some £8 million. If the Prioress thinks she can raise another £2 million for this, why cannot she raise a similar amount to maintain and adapt the existing buildings, perhaps to share them with another institution, perhaps to enhance the monastery with a centre for music and liturgy, or Catholic history, or with a pilgrimage centre? What is surely required is imagination combined with respect for what has been inherited. As so often with these cases of cultural vandalism, the problem is fundamentally one not of economics but of attitude.
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