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London Culture – Embassy 43

Marcela Chavez at Queen Ena’s piano

A royal residence

Pierre de Villiers visits the artist wife of the Peruvian Ambassador, Marcela Chavez and discovers a celebration of Peruvian art and the intriguing story of a royal resident

Arriving in London in April with her husband Julio Munoz-Deacon, the Ambassador of Peru, Marcela Chavez had a very clear idea of how the interior of their new Residence should look.

“When it comes to paintings, I wanted to combine the old with the new,” she explains, as she gives us a tour of the gracious Italianate Victorian mansion in Porchester Terrace, a short hop from Kensington Palace.

Something old, something new
“In the past there have been mostly religious paintings on the walls but, for a number of years, Peru’s had these young artists doing really nice jobs. I think it’s important to highlight their work.

“Then there is also some fantastic furniture with a rich history so you have these modern paintings next to an old style, with all the pieces celebrating Peru.”

Chavez has done an exceptional job turning her residence into a showcase of Peruvian artistic expression. Works by Camilo Blas (1910 -1985), a key exponent of the Indigenista Movement, and modernist Macedonio de la Torre (1893 – 1981) share wall space with exciting young artist Natalia Velit and stunning paintings done by Chavez herself.

Inspiration of home
“I always liked doing things with my hands,” she says, motioning to one of her own striking abstracts. She is painting another acrylic abstract in a studio upstairs – but unlike this one it will not be for display: rather it is destined for her daughter.

Which is rather apt since it was her daughter who first introduced her to painting.

“While we were posted in Canada in 2004, my daughter started painting and taking classes so I decided to do the same.”

Her first-ever painting – also on display in the Residence – is a serene reminder of home, depicting cotton pickers with armfuls of cotton flowers reminiscent of the rounded Chulucanas ceramics typical of northern Peru.

“The teacher couldn’t believe that I painted it on my own,” she smiles.

Royal resident
The painting is a few paces from a Steinway piano once belonging to arguably the Residence’s most famous resident, Queen Victoria Eugenia Julia Ena, estranged wife of King Alfonso XIII of Spain and Queen Victoria’s granddaughter. She is also grandmother to the current King of Spain Juan Carlos I.

Queen Ena went into self-imposed exile after the Republicans abolished the monarchy in 1931 and moved to London to be close to her mother Princess Beatrice, who lived in Kensington Palace.

But the Second World War brought with it uncertainty over her status and the exiled Queen was invited to leave the UK by the government. She left the capital for Lausanne in neutral Switzerland. 

A good thing it was too, since the building was hit by friendly fire shortly after she left. The Peruvian embassy moved in after the war in 1948, and documents show it rented the property from Queen Ena herself for a mere £300 a year before buying the freehold in 1980.

Silver service
Scattered around the piano are items meticulously crafted out of silver, including a peacock place-name holder, a 150-year-old photo frame and a pair of horse-shoes.

“Peru is renowned for its silverwork so all these items is also a celebration of the country,” explains Chavez, whose favourite item was a present from her husband – a tiny statuette of a man carrying several items on his back.

“This is an Ekeko, a Tiawanakan god of abundance and prosperity,” she explains, before adding with a chuckle. “My husband gave it to me and said that, when I travel with the children, I have so many bags I am like an Ekeko!”

The transformation of the residence is a triumph but for perfectionist Chavez it remains a work in progress. She is planning to restore some of the older paintings and is herself working on the frames.

It is the attention to detail, she says, that makes the Peruvian residence such a fascinating place to visit.

“It’s a nice house with a warm, welcoming atmosphere. And I think the art really adds to that. There is a mix of everything in here.”

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The silver ‘Ekeko’ given to Marcela by her husband, the Ambassador of Peru


Marcela Chavez with one of her abstracts


An abstract by Natalia Velit


An abstract by Macedonio de la Torre


Her first painting below a Camilo Blas


A Camilo Blas

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