For more than 200 years, a massive oil painting of the martyred St. Stephen hung over an altar of a London church designed by Christopher Wren, even surviving World War II bombings.
In 1985, the 18-foot canvas was rolled up, trundled off to storage, and largely forgotten amid a renovation of the church, St. Stephen Walbrook. Today, the majestic work by American-born painter Benjamin West is again on display, in a public conservation studio at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where a team is working to restore it.
How it came to Boston, over the objections of an Anglican Church council and despite a temporary bar of its export by the British government, is testament to the timing and perseverance of Edward C. “Ned” Johnson III, chairman of Fidelity Investments, who is quietly building one of the most valuable art collections in New England.
Johnson paid $2.85 million, well below the asking price, for “Devout Men Taking the Body of Saint Stephen.” He gave it to the MFA as a gift to departing director Malcolm Rogers, and it’s slated to hang in the prominent Shapiro courtyard building by next spring. But you won’t see Johnson’s name on the exhibit. He always gives anonymously.
The 85-year-old billionaire has long been one of Boston’s most important arts patrons, donating to the region’s museums but also lending his art for public view. The St. Stephen painting is but one of many pieces added in recent years to his collections, which include Asian works and American furniture and decorative arts.
The assets held by his Brookfield Arts Foundation, which buys works and loans them to museums, grew by more than $150 million, to $262 million, over the five years through 2013, according to the most recent public tax filings. Johnson has been devoting a greater portion of his overall charitable giving to art collecting in recent years. More than half of the money his family foundation gave away in 2013 went to Brookfield, for $48 million in art acquisitions.
In its tax filing, Brookfield lists its many holdings, from a $44,000 suit of armor to flatware valued at $1.6 million. Johnson’s best known acquisition is a $16.8 million historic house dismantled in China and rebuilt at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, where Johnson is a major donor.
“He has an amazing collection and apparently is still adding to it,’’ said Sarah Douglas, editor in chief at ARTnews magazine in New York, which has repeatedly ranked Johnson as one of the world’s 200 most active collectors.
No one from the Johnson family foundations or Fidelity would be interviewed about the West painting or Johnson’s broader art collecting. Even as Johnson’s heirs take a greater role in managing the family’s philanthropy, the brisk pace of collecting, it seems, has been directed by the legendary investment executive himself, with the help of art specialists employed at Salem, N.H.-based Brookfield as well as brokers in other parts of the world.
As in all of his business dealings, Johnson was supremely private with respect to pursuing the St. Stephen painting. His name was not officially disclosed in England while a broker was negotiating on his behalf in 2012, according to several people involved in the process. Stories chronicling the sale referred to an anonymous American foundation, though one art trade publication speculated the buyer was Johnson. Two people briefed on the matter confirmed for the Globe that he purchased it.
“Devout Men” was painted in 1776 by West, a Pennsylvania native who immigrated to England and became a noted portraitist and religious painter, and who was a longtime president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
He was commissioned to do a painting of the 17th-century church’s patron saint by its rector at the time, Thomas Wilson. Often described as “eccentric,” Wilson apparently ordered up the piece without proper permission, and hung it over an altar where it blocked the main east window; it was later moved to the north wall.
Measuring 18 feet 6 inches tall by 10 feet 6 inches wide, the painting features West’s signature bold colors and a dramatic depiction of muscled men carrying St. Stephen, amid followers, to his burial after being stoned to death.
Although the painting had been tucked away for 30 years, when St. Stephen Walbrook leaders decided to sell it — and to let it leave the country — alarms went off, spurring a complex process involving the Church of England and the British government.
In London, the painting was venerated by some as an important work in the city’s cultural history, and gently mocked by others as the overwrought work of a minor talent. St. Stephen representatives argued the latter in 2013 while seeking permission to sell the piece.
In their export application, church officials called it “a parody of Old Master styles,” even suggesting it had hardly been missed since being taken down. The Anglican Church’s court agreed, over the protests of its Church Buildings Council, which helps parishes in difficult financial straits.
Britain’s culture minister took a different view than the Anglican court. After St. Stephen Walbrook sought $3.5 million for the painting, and agreed to sell it to a mystery American buyer for nearly $2.9 million in late 2012, the transaction had to be approved by the government’s Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest.
The panel deemed the painting to be of “outstanding significance,” according to a public report, citing its importance in the study of British art in the second half of the 18th century, and of Anglican Church patronage of British artists.
In December 2013, Culture Minister Ed Vaizey put a temporary bar on the sale, saying, “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.”
But no British buyer stepped in. By March of last year, the only offer on the table was from a then-unnamed Boston nonprofit. With no rival bids in sight, Vaizey issued the export license.
At the MFA, this new addition to its West collection has been described as “monumental.” It’s so large, it just barely fits into the room where a team is working to clean it and remove layers of varnish from prior restorations, and to bring the original sheen back to its giant carved and gilt frame.
“It’s wonderful to be able to do it in front of the public,’’ said Rhona MacBeth, head of paintings conservation at the museum. When the painting takes its place in the Shapiro courtyard, it will serve as a link between the museum’s wings devoted to art of Europe and art of the Americas.
Executives at the MFA and other museums that have received Johnson’s patronage, including the Peabody Essex, will not discuss the man who has brought myriad artworks their way. But in New England, Johnson is one of a handful of wealthy collectors with so large an impact on the region’s art institutions.
“The most influential person at the MFA, hands down, is Ned Johnson,’’ said one well-informed Boston art collector, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the Johnson family’s dislike of publicity. “He was the leading force behind the decision to build the new Americas wing.”
Johnson’s wife, Lillie, is a longtime honorary MFA trustee who regularly attends the board’s meetings, and the family has given tens of millions of dollars in support of the institution. In 2012 alone, the Johnsons gave $2.3 million to the Boston museum from the Edward C. Johnson Fund, $1.3 million of that for art acquisitions.
Those art purchases are in addition to the ones at his Brookfield Arts Foundation, which was likely created for tax reasons, according to art specialists and collectors interviewed by the Globe, as well as one person briefed on Johnson’s intentions.
The use of the foundation also allows Johnson’s heirs to continue to control the collection in the future, and make decisions about to whom the artworks will be loaned, these people said.
Named after the tiny town of Brookfield, not quite 20 miles west of Worcester, where Johnson family forebears once lived, the foundation spent $47.6 million in art acquisitions in 2013, up from $20.7 million in 2010. The nonprofit’s tax filing said it loaned 45 works to six major museums that year, and funded conservation for nine objects.
In addition to the MFA, Johnson has made a significant imprint on the Peabody Essex, a smaller museum with collections ranging from ship figureheads to Asian pottery, and the Chinese merchant’s house from the Qing dynasty loaned by Johnson. He is widely believed to be the Salem museum’s largest donor, with a major hand in its recent $650 million fund-raising effort.
How Johnson family philanthropy will change with the next generation is the source of much interest in Boston’s art circles.
In one recent instance, the patriarch’s son, Edward C. Johnson IV, and son-in-law Christopher McKown, married to Fidelity chief executive Abigail Johnson, had a hands-on role in helping revise the Peabody Essex’s $200 million expansion plan, with the senior Johnson’s blessing, according to several people who know them.
One thing that’s unlikely to change: The name behind the money, and the art, will still be missing from the walls.
Beth Healy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @HealyBeth.