Apsley House stands proudly on London’s Hyde Park Corner. It was once known as Number One, London. Come with me and discover the home of one of England’s heroes, the Duke of Wellington.
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Inside Apsley House
Don’t be fooled by the restrained honey coloured exterior inside Apsley House is all opulent interiors awash with gold. These are some of the few examples of a Regency aristocratic London town house interior that survive. Europe’s leaders rushed to show their gratitude to the Duke of Wellington for defeating Napoleon and showered him with gifts. The walls are heavy with the high quality art that was pressed upon the Duke.
Much of the artwork is displayed in the Waterloo Gallery, ninety feet long and two storeys high. It was here that the Duke held the annual Waterloo banquet to mark his great victory. When not in use as a banqueting hall it is the home of the bulk of the Wellington Collection.
At the heart of the Wellington Collection are 82 works from the Spanish Royal Collection. Joseph Napoleon helped himself to the cream of the Spanish Royal art collection during his stint as King of Spain. When Joesph was defeated in June 1813 the paintings were discovered rolled up and ready to make the journey to France. They were rescued by the Duke and sent to London. When Napoleon was finally vanquished, the Duke offered the paintings back to King Ferdinand VII, the restored Spanish King, but Ferdinand insisted that he keep them.
What was once the dining room is now dedicated to the Wellington Museum. Here you can see the many dinner services that grateful European leaders gave the Duke. To me a dinner service means plates and bowls. Turns out that if you are lavishing a war hero with crockery you add the fanciest centre pieces that Sèvres and Meissen could produce.
Napoleon and Apsley House
Napoleon never came to Apsley House, he was defeated long before the Duke bought the house. However there is an eye poppingly huge statue of him. Set in the footwell of a spiral staircase is an enormous, naked, marble statue by Canova of Napoleon in the guise of Mars the Peacemaker. Napoleon had the statue made but hated it. In 1816 the British Government bought the statue from the restored French King and presented it to Wellington. Quite a keepsake!
WHO LIVED AT APSLEY HOUSE?
Robert Adam built Apsley House for Lord Apsley (hence the name) who was at the time the Lord Chancellor, in 1771. Fast forward a few decades to 1807 when Richard, Marquess of Wellesley purchased the house for £16,000 and promptly set about spending £20,000 on alterations. Ten years later the Marquess’s marriage was in tatters and he was on the brink of bankruptcy. Step forward the Marquess’s younger brother, now the victor of the Battle of Waterloo and newly enobled as the Duke of Wellington.
A grateful nation had granted £700,000 to build a Waterloo Palace fit for our hero. He opted to put in a bid for £40,000 to buy his brothers pad and add a few embellishments of his own. Benjamin Wyatt drew up plans for banqueting halls and picture galleries fit for a conquering hero. Wyatt’s final bill came in at more than three times the original estimate much to the annoyance of the Duke.
The Dukes of Wellington have lived in the house ever since. In 1941 the 5th Duke died and a couple of years later the 6th Duke died of wounds sustained during battle in the Second World War. Two deaths in quick succession prompted the 7th Duke to offer the house to the nation. The Wellington Museum Act then created a museum with the top floors remaining as a family house. The Duke of Wellington still lives at Apsley House.
Who was the Duke of Wellington?
Simply the Duke of Wellington was the man who defeated Napoleon. He was born, Arthur Wellesley in 1769 the third son of the 1st Lord Mornington. His father died when he was 12 leaving huge debts. Eton was off the cards and so the young Arthur was packed off to into the Army. In India at the the Battle of Assaye he began to be noticed.
Once home from India, Arthur renewed his pursuit of Catherine (Kitty) Pakenham the daughter of Lord Longford. The pair had fallen in love before he left for India but the Pakenham family had rejected his marriage proposal. Now he was rich and famous Lord Longford said yes to the match. Sadly Kitty was no longer the radiant young girl Arthur had fallen in love with and the marriage was not a happy one, not helped by the long years that the couple spent apart whilst he was away fighting. They did manage to have two sons.
Back in Europe Napoleon and the Peninsular Wars kept Arthur occupied. He defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Came home and became Prime Minister.
Why No 1 London?
Apsley House has popularly known as No 1 London ever since it was built. Why? Legend has it that it was the first building that you came to after the Kensington Turnpike. Once you’d passed that you were in London. Hence No 1 London. Nowadays it seems to be at the very heart of London not the edge!
Wellington, Women and Friendship special exhibtion
Wellington might not have got on well with his wife but he was very popular with other aristocratic ladies. Tongues wagged. Cartoons were drawn. Wellington, Women and Friendship looks at the women who were drawn to the first Duke and their relationship with him. Letters and diaries seem to suggest intellectual closeness but not physical intimacy … which is not what the Georgian gossips thought!
Visiting Apsley House need to know
- 149 Piccadilly, London W1J 7NT
- Open: April – December, Wednesday – Sunday 11am – 5pm
- January – March weekends 10am – 4pm
- Admission: Adult £11.60 Concession and family tickets available
- Members of English Heritage go free.
- Art Fund members also go free
London has a wealth of Historic Houses to visit, check out my post for more inspiration.