Warwick Street - Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory

Warwick Street, London W1

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A unique survival in central London of an eighteenth-century Catholic chapel. Built in 1788 from designs by Joseph Bonomi, it replaced a chapel attached to the Bavarian embassy, which had been sacked during the Gordon Riots of 1780. This explains the unassertive, domestic external character of its successor. In the 1870s plans for the transformation of the interior into a Byzantine-style basilica were drawn up by J. F. Bentley, but only realised in part; the interior still largely retains its late eighteenth-century character. The Bentley work is of high quality, a foretaste in miniature of his work at Westminster Cathedral.

Golden Square was laid out in the late seventeenth century. The first house to be built, in about 1675, was no. 24, the present rectory and parish hall (this has a later, early Georgian refronting).  In the eighteenth century the square was a popular place of residence for foreign legations, including the Portuguese envoy, who lived at nos. 23 and 24 from 1724 to 1747. This is commemorated in a blue plaque on the front of the property (photo bottom right), which also records the residence of Don Sebastian Joseph de Carvalho, later Marquis of Pombal and de facto ruler of Portugal from 1750. ‘Diplomatic immunity’ allowed for Catholic worship to take place unmolested in chapels attached to Catholic embassies, and a chapel was built at the rear of the property, probably in or soon after 1724. This appears to have been a small structure, possibly converted from existing buildings, with a discreet public entrance from a narrow alley leading from Warwick Street (see figure 1). After the Portuguese envoy left, the house and chapel were occupied and used by Count Haslang, the Bavarian envoy, until 1783. Priests serving the chapel were effectively mission priests ministering to native Catholics in the neighbourhood, of which by 1780 there were nearly 1000 living in St James’s parish.

The relaxation of the penal laws associated with the passing of the first Catholic Relief Act generated a backlash, culminating in the Gordon Riots of June 1780.  On the night of 2-3 June, both the Bavarian and the Sardinian chapel (in Lincoln’s Inn Fields) were sacked. According to Haslang’s account, furnishings including the altarpiece (a painting of the Descent from the Cross by Andrea Casali), organ and pews were broken up and, along with Mass books and vestments, burnt in the street, but the building itself was unharmed.  Haslang was able to obtain £1300 in compensation from the Government for the damage, and the building was repaired and back in use for his funeral Mass in May 1783.

The chapel continued as the Bavarian chapel until 1788, when Haslang’s successor moved away. Bishop Talbot, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, then obtained eight- and nine-hundred year leases on the two properties in Golden Square and the chapel behind. With the support of the Elector of Bavaria and a committee of prominent Catholics he appealed for funds for a new church, to be built from designs by Joseph Bonomi. Work started in the spring of 1789, and the new church was opened on 12 March 1790, on the feast of St Gregory the Great, to whom it was dedicated.  The external appearance of the church was designed to be as self-effacing a possible, for fear of provoking anti-Catholic feeling. Narrow slits alongside the entrances served as spyholes to vet those coming and going.

The church continued for many years to be known as the Bavarian chapel, and was supported by the Electors (later Kings) of Bavaria until German unification. It retains its essentially late eighteenth century character and fabric, with two main phases of alteration.

The first of these was in 1853, at about the time it acquired the dual dedication of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory. A giant new altarpiece was installed, with Corinthian columns and pilasters, shown in The Illustrated London News of 24 December 1853. This included a marble bas-relief of the Assumption over the altar, by John Edward Carew, costing about £1000. A new ceiling was also built and the congregational seats rearranged. The architect was John Erlam and the builder a Mr Holder.

A second, more radical, alteration was advanced in 1875, involving the remodelling of the interior in Byzantine style. The architect, J. F. Bentley, proposed the transformation of interior of the ‘mean little building’ (de l’Hopital, 449) into a basilica, with an eastern apse, side aisles and galleries, all decorated with marble and mosaic - a foretaste in miniature of Westminster Cathedral. Work took place in 1876-77, starting at the east end, with a new raised sanctuary, apse and altarpiece (photo bottom left) replacing the arrangement of 1853. Carew's bas-relief was moved to a new position over the sacristy door, where it remains today (photo middle right). However, the discovery of two deep cellars and heavy additional expense meant that work progressed no further, apart from a shortening of the galleries to their present length (with provision of new gallery fronts), and (according to de L’Hopital) the raising of the roof to ‘suit the proportions of the new apse’. Thus the largely eighteenth-century character (now unique for a Catholic chapel in London) was spared.

At about the same time, a shrine of Our Lady was erected on the south side of the church, with a statue purchased by the rector, the Rev. and Hon. Gilbert Talbot. Bentley designed the altar, its mosaic frontal depicting the Adoration of the Magi. The walls above and at the side of the altar were covered with what de l’Hopital described as ‘a truly appalling display of silver ex votos’ in glass cases, now contained within the pilasters of a wooden reredos of 1960.

In 1900, towards the end of his life and while working on Westminster Cathedral, Bentley was consulted by the Revd A. Pownall over the completion of the decoration of the apse. The lower walls were lined with marble and, after Bentley’s death in 1902, the work continued by J. A. Marshall. The mosaic work in the semi-dome of the apse was carried out in 1910 by George Bridge from designs by George Daniels (based on sketched by Bentley); it depicts the Coronation of the Virgin. Bentley had dividing the surface of the upper part of the apse wall with nine panels with stone pilasters; these Marshall replaced with panels of pavonazzo marble carrying a deep white marble entablature, with mosaic figures in six of the intervening panels.

Other work carried out by J. A. Marshall included a pair of light green pedestals for statues in the sanctuary, a red marble step with gilt communion rails (the gift of the Duke of Norfolk in 1908), a brass tablet on the south wall with the names of former rectors, and the oak benches for the congregation (1912), given by Fr Pownall, with Baroque ends, from a more elaborate design by Bentley.

A number of alterations were carried out between the late 1950s and the 1970s, mostly by Douglas Purnell of Bartlett & Purnell, Buckingham Palace Road. External alterations included the red staining of the brickwork and the addition of gilded (fibreglass?) angels and stars in the blind openings. Internal alterations included a painting of the Annunciation at the west end, rebuilding of the organ, new reredoses for the Lady altar and an imported altar in the north aisle, and reordering of the sanctuary. The last of these, in 1976, was sensitively carried out, and involved bringing the high altar forward to allow for westward celebration, with the tabernacle and gradine left in situ and the area below exposed by relocation of the altar made good in marble. The 1908 communion rails were also left in situ

 

The list entry, below, describes the main features, albeit briefly, and makes no mention of Bonomi as the architect. In addition to those included above, the following details can be added:

On the front elevation, the decorative stars and low relief gilded (fibreglass?) figures of angels in the blind arches of the upper stage were added in 1952 and 1957, no doubt in an attempt to give at least some external indication that this is a public place of worship. The brickwork, probably originally yellow, has been stained red (in 1952, according to Bradley/Pevsner).

Inside, the high altar dates from 1914. It has a gilt frontal and was brought forward in 1976, with the tabernacle and gradine left in situ. The Lady altar on the south side was reconstructed in 1960, with a mahogany reredos designed by Douglas Purnell, and incorporating the statue of Our Lady acquired by Fr Talbot in 1875. The neo-Classical Italianate marble altar on the north side was brought here in 1958 from Foxcote House, Ilmington, Warwickshire, and given a new panelled reredos by Douglas Purnell in 1966.  The font is placed in a baptistery formed within a former entrance area in the southwest corner; it dates from the time of the rebuilding of the chapel and was originally located against the south side beside the confessional. It is of stone, with an oval bowl on a bulbous baluster-shaft with moulded base. The organ originally dates from the 1790s; it has been rebuilt on more than one occasion, most recently in 1960 by Noel Mander, with a new case by Douglas Purnell. At the west end is a painting of the Annunciation, by Adrian Maretti, 1959.

Diocese: Westminster

Architect: Joseph Bonomi; J. F. Bentley

Original Date: 1789

Conservation Area: Yes

Modifications: 1876-77

Listed Grade: Grade II*