Viewing the faintly yellow square of Apsley house rising above the east end of South Carriage Drive, which runs along the lower edge of Hyde Park from the corner, I was reminded that Wellington had a famous eye for choosing commanding position. His London home has excellent access to the royal palaces and is on more or less of a direct line to Whitehall up Piccadilly. From here he could reach Windsor without, at first, having to ride through the city and likewise it was close to the great west road which led to his country house at Stratfield Saye, a mere jaunt of 8 or 9 hours with fast horses.
You enter Apsley House as guests have done for hundreds of years. Across the cobbled forecourt, mounting the steps, and twisting the well-used knob on the grand old brown wooden door. Walking inside, the light dims and the traffic noise is audibly reduced. Accommodating English Heritage staff members direct you to the ticket counter and close the door behind you. To one side of the desk a psychedelic line drawing of Lawrence’s Wellington stares questioningly from a marble table as you pay your admission fee. He asks a question the Great Duke would never have thought to ask: ‘Why so matte and conventional?’
The art on the walls and the tables of gifts, which took a few casualties by the time I left, demand your attention. Here you can buy a book, postcards, pins and novelty mugs. Here you can peruse the great and rare works of biography and question why a Bernard Cornwell book is numbered amongst them. While upon the walls, famous artwork is already telling a story, the paint keeping vivid the faces of soldiers long faded, but just remember although this is the gift area, you can’t take those home, no matter how high your budget.
There are some stately homes that have an unmistakable air of dereliction but despite the patented stately home scent and echoing entrance hall Apsley is not one of them. It is the residence of an important man, it was where Wellington came when he had to fulfil his role as the ‘great man,’ and pillar of state. It was Number 1 London, the first house after the tollgates at Hyde Park Corner, a coordinate of London’s rich map that is resonant with history.
The house has a vibrancy to it and a wonderful thing about Apsley is that you can feel the personality of the Duke of Wellington imprinted throughout. The layout and decor are still very close to how he would remember it. Make no mistake that the houses of the Wellesley family depend on the lingering aura of the victor of Waterloo to draw the crowds and it is incumbent on those who manage them to maintain these ancestral holdings as closely as possible to what they would have been in Great Duke’s time.
The private rooms are not open to the public but the grand reception suite that covers the 1st floor is a remarkable window into his achievements. It is the house of a public figure, a place for ostentation and ceremony, used for entertaining and formal engagements. Yet despite the opulence of the Waterloo Banquet Hall, the imperial style mouldings that curl and gleam across the ceilings and the rich yellow golds, ivory whites and plum reds that pervade the colour palette of the rooms, there is an underlying reserve and a simplicity which when compared to other mansions and palaces is almost restrained.
The house does not shout about its great owner, rather, with force and persuasion it directs attention. It is more refined than triumphant, more gracious that showy, much like the first Duke it makes practical use of grandeur. It is one of the only houses that I have visited that allows the mind to clearly picture the social and official round that once played out in these chambers, the bygone age to be imagined from the pages of Jane Austin, Makepeace Thackery and Leo Tolstoy.
To those who know nothing about Wellington and his legacy, Apsley House is the best place to start, but should you have no interest in the Great Duke this building has another attraction. It is one of London’s best, yet often most overlooked galleries of classical painting. While holding nothing, in terms of scale, as the large national institutions in the City of Westminster, every wall of Apsley nonetheless is covered with portraits and paintings dating from the renaissance to the baroque and onwards. The exceedingly fine collection is not only important to the military and political legacy of the Great Duke but are incalculably significant to the history of western art.
It is also quite a thought for an admirer of Wellington to look at a painting that was already century’s old when it was originally brought to Apsley, and to say with 100% certainty that the Duke saw this right here. Should you care to view the vast painting of the Waterloo Banquet you can see in the background that the artworks in that chamber have remained where they have rested for over one hundred years. This is a wonderful personal touch to a gallery, as it forms a remarkable sense of contact with the past. An immediacy, derived from the presence of an object in the place where it was originally curated, and from which, time alone separates from the past.
It will come as no surprise to British ears, used to the demands of other countries to give up the treasures held in their national museums, that the bulk of this collection was looted, but interestingly, it was not looted by the British. The collection was ‘acquired’ by King Joseph Bonaparte of Napoleonic Spain and then briefly by British and allied soldiers rummaging around the King’s baggage train after the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. The Duke, had the collection rescued and packed up in crates and then sorted, identified and catalogued. When it was compiled the list included names like Titian and Caravaggio, but also Velasquez and Morello, names that were almost unknown to wider Europe at the time. Wellington then offered to return the treasures to the restored rightful King of Spain, who declined them, saying that what the Duke had come by honestly, he must retain.
Since then the Dukes of Wellington have proved very generous in attempting to return artefacts in their possession. There would be many more items from the Duke’s India campaigns on view today had not one of his descendants returned the majority to the nation from whence they came. When Apsley House was gifted to the nation the art collection became accessible to the public and one could spend hours in the various chambers gazing into the endless, sombre, stare of Velasquez’s water seller, or the subtle chiaroscuro flamboyance of Caravaggio’s cheerful Musician.
Principally though, Apsley is resonant to the public life of one of Britain’s greatest public servants, whose international standing can be glimpsed by the rows of plates that gently gleam and glisten on their shelves in the subdued light of the Museum room’s many cabinets. There is so much of it that it seems as if in the years after the defeat of Napoleon, the royal porcelain factories of Europe were principally employed in making dinner Services for the Duke of Wellington.
My visit took a small party and myself through the echoing entrance hall, which is dark and cool, down a similarly recumbent flight of steps to the exhibition room. This part of the house must once have been part of servant’s quarters but now leads to a modest room which holds about four tall glass cases set into the walls which have been painted in midnight blue, gold and white, and serve as information boards explaining the course of the Mysore and Maratha campaigns.
Running until 3 November 2019 it is a repository of artefacts pertaining to the Duke’s time in India. He was of the opinion that he knew as much about soldiering as he ever did after returning from India. For a period of about eight years, beginning in 1797 and ending in 1805, Wellesley, as he then was, grew from a competent battalion commander to an uncommonly skilled general and administrator. ITV’s recent (mostly) historical drama, Beecham House is set in this period of Indian history. The British empire in India was growing at an alarming rate during this time due to Wellington’s elder brother, Governor General Richard Wellesley’s, ‘forward policy,’ which would establish the British as the major power in South Asia.
It was also the setting for the formation of a brilliant military mind which even reached the ear of Napoleon who, typically, derided Wellington as a mere general of Sepoys (a derivation of a Persian word that simply meant ‘soldiers’ in India). Wellington was thinking of himself in these terms on the very day of Waterloo when for the first and last time he faced the great disturber, it is said he remarked that Napoleon would now see how a general of Sepoys could defend a position and proceeded to do so. Though the apocryphal idea that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, I have never doubted that in reality the pillars of victory were established on the wide, dusty, famine haunted, plains of the Deccan in central India. It is by no accident that Wellington considered Assaye, fought in September 1803 as one of his most impressive military achievements. This was one of two battle honours which appeared embossed on the front of his funeral carriage, the other was Waterloo.
In the exterior hallway leading in, the gloom of the stairwell is banished. A gleaming cabinet containing plates illustrating events and battles of Wellington’s time in India is set into the right-hand wall. The cabinets are filled with interesting objects, some of which have been loaned from the Wellington estate at Stratfield Saye in Hampshire. A selection of aged books, that can be found listed as part of the famous library, quoted by Guedella stand in one. In another, two highly decorated drums silently fill their case, next to which are arrayed a brace of swords. One hefty blade belonged to Tipu of Mysore, while another appears to be the one General Wellesley is holding in several portraits and therefore is a contender as one of the few sabres he ever drew in anger. Opposite this is an intriguing display, including a brooch, clustered with gemstones, and a collection of carved and painted figurines showing the dress and daily activities of people in India.
An engraving of the dynamic Hopner painting of the then Major General Wellesley can be compared with a full colour reproduction of the original on the entrance wall. As you walk through the rooms on the first floor, the blue and white panels will continue, drawing your attention to other aspects of the Duke’s time in the east. The portrait of what Lady Longford described as a ‘dark eyed beauty’ of the porcelain skinned persuasion is prominent amongst a surrounding gallery of men in uniform. The delicate looks of Mrs. Freese, the wife of an officer who was in Srirangapatna (then Seringapatam) and who Wellesley was reputedly enamoured of, are a welcome feminine contrast and might be said to be among the first of the legion of ladies people imagine became his mistresses.
This exhibition serves as an excellent and insightful introduction to the formation of one of the most formidable military brains in history and will greatly inform the rest of what you see in the house. Take special note of the many portraits of Wellington as you go for a look at his evolving character. Compare the Robert Home portraits to the Hopner’s and fit them into a narrative. You can see through these the ambitious, promising, face of a younger brother to a great man; an unknown colonel of the 33rd just at the start of the Indian adventure and the increasingly confident, downright heroic in his own right, General by its end. In these sequences you can see a transformation of the image of a hero, with these in your mind fix your eyes on the Lawrence portraits of the victorious Marquess, Duke and Field Marshal of 1814 and 15, the face of the man who lived at Apsley.
Screened behind a near-impenetrable mask of command, Wellington the man is elusive, he is to be glimpsed not in portraits or artefacts but in the rooms themselves and the house and contents as a whole, the portraits of his friends and associates are as telling as any of the great man. The humour and taste, not least the remarkable reputation and personality of probably the greatest British public figure of the first part of the 19th century is indelibly stamped in luxuriant and gracious entertaining spaces of Apsley House.
In finishing I would like to thank English Heritage and the manager of Apsley House; Marcus Cribb, I am very grateful to you for arranging my visit. Thanks to Josephine Oxley, the able curator, for help with the images. Also to Robin who could not have been more helpful on my arrival and to the rest of the staff at Apsley who run and maintain this property for the nation.
Should anyone wish more information on visiting house and nearby Wellington arch, please visit https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/apsley-house/ . Remember that a joint ticket is available for Apsley House and Wellington Arch (which is located opposite) which houses a exhibition on the Battle of Waterloo along with the Duke of Wellington’s sword and famous Boots.
See you again for another Adventure in Historyland, Josh.