Throwback: Apsley House

During the summer, I visited Number One London, otherwise known as Apsley House or the home of the Duke of Wellington. It is only after having studied History of Art in my degree that I have really come to appreciate what an incredible collection is housed there. 

Standing in the centre of London at Hyde Park Corner, many people –particularly, I think, native Londoners- walk straight past without appreciating the building’s significance, the importance of its previous owners and the seminal artworks to be seen inside.
The Waterloo Gallery 

Although this is famously the home of the Duke of Wellington, some of the most stunning pieces here were actually owned by his infamous rival, Napoleon Bonaparte. At the bottom of the principal staircase is the colossal Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker by Antonio Canova (1802-6). It was so heavy that the floor had to be reinforced to support it. The statue presented Napoleon as a magnificent God with an ideal nude form, emulating the statues of ancient Emperors. However, it is said that Napoleon resented the statue, perhaps because, at the age of 42 when it was revealed, his real body looked ridiculous compared with this idealised one. It is interesting that in Wellington’s own home he should have such a piece but he admired Napoleon and has many of his portraits throughout the building.

Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, Antonio Canova (1802-6). 

Apsley House’s Spanish Collection is another prize they can thank the Bonapartes for. The 165 Spanish paintings on display were discovered at the Battle of Victoria (1813), in the abandoned baggage of Joseph Bonaparte. The Collection includes some of Diego Velazquez’s key masterpieces including Two Young Men Eating at a Humble Table (1618), Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) and The Waterseller of Seville (1620.) This last painting was clearly highly important in Velazquez’s development of his own skills, as he re-painted this composition at least 3 times, experimenting with varying degrees of chiaroscuro. It is a prime example of art during the Spanish Golden Age, when Velazquez boasted how he could render different surfaces including glass, ceramics, cloth, skin and hair. The detail of water droplets on the jug is particularly of note. It is quite amazing that this influential Spanish piece is on show right in the centre of London.

The Waterseller of Seville, Diego Velazquez (1620) 

One of the most unusual and dramatic rooms in the house is ‘The Museum’ in which can be found the incredible gifts Wellington was showered with following the victory at Waterloo. Ranging from a Silver-gilt plate collection to swords and batons, it is a treasure trove. A beautiful piece on display is the Waterloo Shield which was inspired by the shield of Achilles as described by Homer in the Iliad:

Then first thing he created was a huge and sturdy shield, all wonderfully crafted.
Around its outer edge, he fixed a triple rim, glittering in the light, attaching to it a silver carrying strap. The shield had five layers. On the outer one, with his great skill he fashioned many rich designs…

The Waterloo Shield (1822)
Instead of being emblazoned with the complex imagery Homer describes, the Waterloo Shield (1822) is a true tribute to Wellington. In the centre, he is rendered in silver gilt and ceremoniously crowned by Victory. Surrounding this are 10 reliefs showing scenes from his military career. It is an object that shows the adoration Wellington experienced following his military victories and the pride Britons had in him.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, Sir Thomas Lawrence (1815-16)
I should also note that the information available in Apsley House is particularly accessible. Cheap guidebooks are available to purchase but there are also free large-print labels for each painting and audio guides. The audio guides were notably informative, with short videos highlighting interesting pieces. The 9th Duke of Wellington presents many of these videos which I felt was very personal and engaging. 

Countless other treasures –from the Lawrence portrait to a monumental porcelain Egyptian Service- await visitors to Number One London. Not bad for a place that began as a small apple stall...

The Egyptian Service, (1810-20) 
A watercolour of Hyde Park Corner in 1756, showing the apple stall and inn that later made way for Apsley House 

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