The Spanish Embassy Chapel
Story by Nicholas Bundock
It is well known that St James’s Spanish Place is the successor of chapels attached to the Spanish Embassy in London.
For centuries, the embassy would be the home of the ambassador. When a new ambassador was appointed, he would choose a house, not necessarily that of his predecessor. In consequence, embassy chapels sometimes only survived for as long as the embassy remained at the same location. The history of many of these chapels is well known, such as the chapel in Ely Place, which is now St. Etheldreda’s, but which served as the embassy chapel for part of the seventeenth century. Equally well documented are the chapels which existed at Powis House, Ormond Street, in the late eighteenth century, and the chapel at Hertford House, Manchester Square, the immediate predecessor of St. James’s, Spanish Place.
Less well known is the mid-eighteenth-century Spanish Embassy chapel at 7 Soho Square. In 1749, the ambassador, Ricardo Wall, moved into a newly built Palladian house at this address. Wall, whose family originated from Ireland, was a former naval and army officer who had begun his naval career serving on the Spanish ship, the Real San Philipe during the reign of Philip V. At the rear of the house, he built a chapel.
At this time, embassy chapels were almost the only places in London where Catholics could attend mass. Catholic worship was forbidden elsewhere. For this reason, teams of embassy chaplains ministered to the spiritual needs of Catholics in the capital. By the 1740s, the Catholic population of London was growing considerably; immigrants from Ireland and continental Europe had swelled the numbers of indigenous Catholics. This resulted in very large congregations at masses in the embassy chapels. In Wall’s chapel alone, there were sometimes as many as 1000 weekly communicants. Around 1760, the embassy had seven chaplains; the Sardinian Embassy chapel, in Kingsway, had the same number.
From a surviving print, it is clear that Wall’s chapel was a small but impressive building. Designed by William Jones, it consisted of a nave with an arched recess behind the high altar, and two narrow aisles, separated from the nave by classical columns. The plasterwork ornamentation in the ceiling included the sacred monogram and the arms of the King of Spain. In general design, it would have been similar to the church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, Warwick Street, itself once an embassy chapel. A little is known of the chapel’s furnishings. A painting of St James was commissioned from Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. It was planned to hang the painting above the high altar. On its arrival at the chapel, however, it was considered unsuitable, since St James was depicted in a way which made the saint appear too much like St George. An alternative painting was provided by the Spanish artist Preciado de la Vega. This depicted St James as the patron saint of pilgrims.
It has been suggested that in the early 1750s Wall commissioned the Genoese sculptor Agostino Carlini to make models of St James and St Philip, from which porcelain figures were made by the newly established Derby factory. Carlini, who later became a founder member of the Royal Academy, lived nearby in Dean Street. Examples of these figures survive. It is likely that, for Wall, the commission was to enhance the prestige of the embassy. There would have been examples in his home, and perhaps in the chapel, too.
7 Soho Square remained the Spanish Embassy until 1761. For twelve years, its contribution to Catholic life and worship in London must have been considerable. Sadly, neither the house nor its chapel survive. However, Tiepolo’s painting, now in the Museum of Fine Art, Budapest, along with the rare porcelain figures of St James and St Philip, are reminders of this short-lived but pastorally important chapel. Today, the nearby St Patrick’s Soho Square, one of the first Catholic churches in England established since the Reformation, continues this work in the district.
Diego Tellez Alarcia, D. Ricardo Wall, Aut Caesar aut nullus, Madrid 2008.
Nicholas Bundock, The Derby ‘Dry-Edge’ Apostles, Transactions of the English Ceramic Circle, Vol 24, 2013, pp 177-194.