Apsley House

An Imposing Legacy

19th June 2015

This year is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the defining moment in the career of the Duke of Wellington. The building in London which marks his lingering presence on the capital’s landscape is Apsley House, writes Jack Watkins...

There are few more effective ways of surveying the streetscapes of London than from the top deck of a bus, and if you are in the habit of following regular routes, some buildings you pass along the way become like old friends or familiar faces. For me, one such place is Apsley House, the gold-stoned mansion that sits on the north side of Hyde Park Corner, next to Decimus Burton’s dainty, classical-arched entrance screen to the most popular of London’s royal parks.

Under wraps for much of the winter while undergoing a polish, the covers recently came off to reveal a regrettably paler hue, more akin to drying sand – but the building, a survivor of what was once a line of semi-palatial mansions all along Piccadilly until a new road was cut through to Park Lane in the 1960s, still catches the eye. It forms a fitting monument to its most distinguished former occupant, Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington: a suitable partner for the huge Arch built to commemorate his continental victories on the opposite square.

The Duke is so fixed in the national consciousness as a military hero that it’s easy to forget that in his post-army years he was a major figure on the political stage. He was Prime Minister twice, and for some time was the real power behind the throne, signing bills in the monarch’s name. He’d entered politics out of a sense of duty rather than through political convictions, though, and was a genuine reactionary. When he opposed extending the voting rights, the mob was so incensed that a riot took place outside Apsley House, and some of the windows were smashed. The Duke refused to have them mended, merely inserting iron grilles in their place. Though this is not thought to be the foundation for his nickname, the Iron Duke, it’s difficult to imagine a leading political figure being able, or permitted, to occupy such an exposed location in the 21st century.

Apsley House still has the postal address of No 1, London. Along with the prestige, it also reflects the fact that, as late as the early 19th century, it was the first house of the metropolis you encountered after passing through the toll gates of what was then still rural Kensington. Although it has been a public attraction for some time, managed by English Heritage since 2004, the Duke’s successors have retained a presence here, occupying the somewhat less grand living quarters on the upper floors. It was the spry figure of the 9th Duke of Wellington who greeted the members of the press at the recent ‘representation’ of the building, in time for this year’s Waterloo anniversary events.

The 9th Duke has the languid style of a true grandee, and one couldn’t help scrutinising him closely for any resemblances to his ancestor. He has certainly inherited the trim build. Fascinatingly, a recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery featured a daguerreotype of the vanquisher of Napoleon, aged 74. This summer the Duke will be hosting a revival of the magnificent Waterloo Banquet which was once held each year in the property’s Waterloo Gallery. An all-male affair, it was attended by generals and other army officers who been at Waterloo. Initially quite modest, it grew more lavish by the year, and was carefully written up in the newspapers, the reporters recording it in the minutest detail. The final one was held in 1852, the year of the duke’s death.

“You have to imagine what an occasion it was, seventy-four generals sat round this enormous table, the blazing candles reflecting in the ornate, mirrored mirrors,” said Josephine Oxley, English Heritage’s keeper of the Wellington Collection. In fact, you don’t have to stretch your mind too far to picture it. The banqueting table has been relaid with the magnificent silver gilt centrepiece and dinner service, commissioned by the Portuguese in 1816 in honour of Wellington’s role in liberating their country. And the Waterloo Gallery is still one of the most stunning interiors in London, evoking the Versailles palace architecture of the age of Louis XIV. It’s no small irony, as Josephine pointed out, that while Wellington was Napoleonic France’s military nemesis, he was also a huge Francophile.

Still, whatever was on the menu at the banquets was unlikely to have reflected his personal eating preferences. “He was a great traditionalist, and felt there was an obligation to entertain in this way, but his own taste would have been for boiled mutton and a plate of ham,” said Josephine. “Part of him would probably have preferred to have repaired on his own to the library with a bottle of port and a good book.”

In truth, Apsley House was where Wellington showed his public face. His family home was Stratfield Saye, on the Hampshire/Berkshire border, still owned by the Wellesleys today. Although designed by big name architect Robert Adam, Apsley House was quite modest in scale when originally built in the 1770s. So when Wellington acquired it in 1817, he employed Benjamin Dean Wyatt to enlarge it, as well as refacing it in the distinctive Bath stone which marks its distinctive exterior today.

A visit is about far more than looking at a collection of military memorabilia. Apsley House is also home to the Spanish Royal Collection of paintings, discovered after the Battle of Vittoria in 1813, when Napoleon’s brother Joseph tried to make off with a huge collection of priceless artworks. An estimated 300 paintings were rescued by the Duke’s men, and the King of Spain gave them to Wellington as a gift in 1816, after he tried to return them. This astonishing collection includes works by Velazquez, Goya, Corregio, Rubens and Brueghel. Still, this is the year to celebrate Wellington’s finest hour, and if you want to learn more about it, step across to the Wellington Arch. Waterloo 1815 – The Battle for Peace not only explores the lead up to the battle, its unfolding and its consequences, but also features the sword Wellington carried into battle, and his handwritten battle orders. And, of course, there are a pair of original Wellington boots. While these were so stylish that they were to become a fashion item amongst the social dandies of the time, Wellington’s original design arose from practical reasons, offering mounted soldiers more protection around the knee area, where he had observed they often sustained gunshot wounds.

As a man, Wellington still intrigues. He was as stoical and unemotional as Napoleon was moody and highly-strung – but, aside from a liking for fine clothes, keeping to a plain lifestyle and insisting on still sleeping in his campaign bed long after his army days were over, he certainly captured the public imagination of the time. The year before he died he frequently attended the Great Exhibition, which was held in the Crystal Palace, next door to Apsley House in Hyde Park. When he entered, it was written by a contemporary observer, ‘all other objects of interest sank into insignificance.’ At his funeral, one of the first major funerals of the new Railway Age, people poured into London from around the country to witness the occasion. Probably, the hold he had on the national consciousness was similar to that felt for Winston Churchill today. No wonder that house on the corner has such a special aura.

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