Apsley House review (May 2014)
This is out-of-date! I have been here again since I wrote this review
I went back to Apsley House today. I've been here once before but I didn't really appreciate it the first time around because I didn't know who the Duke of Wellington was (which says a lot about my education). But I'm a few years older now, and wiser (and uglier), and I can see that the guy was one of the greatest-ever generals. And he had a big nose too, which just makes me like him even more.
As I'm getting older I'm becoming more patriotic, and swapping out my pop-star heroes for PMs and generals. When I was a kid it was all about John Lennon and Kenny Dalglish. But now it's Nelson, Wellington and Oliver Cromwell. And a bit of Winston Churchill too. We don't make people like that anymore because war isn't glorified in the same way that it was. If you killed ten thousand enemies in the old days then they would have given you a medal and a ticker-tape parade. But if you do the same thing now then all you get is a kicking from the leftie press and a parliamentary enquiry. I suppose that is progress, of sorts. Victory is for the losers. But who have we got left to chisel on a statue? Do you think we'll be walking round Tony Blair's house in fifty years time, with pictures of his Middle Eastern wars hanging on the walls? Ha ha, I don't think so. It's unthinkable, isn't it? The only public figure worthy of a stone statue these days is the Queen.
Churchill was the last of a long line of military heroes, of which Wellington was the best. I'm trying to imagine living his life... campaigning across Europe, marching with the armies, stacking up the victories one after the other, giving Napoleon a wupping at Waterloo. That would have been more than enough for most people, but then he decided to follow it up with a stint as Prime Minister too — twice. And to top it all off he had twenty-five years as Constable of the Tower of London. That is one hell of a life, and one hell of a house to match it.
Apsley House used to sit right on the edge of built-up London, hence its impressive address: No.1 London. But these days it's planted at one end of Piccadilly, where all the cars come roaring round from Knightsbridge. It's a honking, beeping, busy rush of buses, cars and lorries, and if the Duke woke up from his grave today then he would pack up his bags in a flash, and move to somewhere more peaceful.
Once you get inside the imposing stone front everything settles down into a quiet scene, and it's filled with so many pictures and treasures that you wonder where he got it all. Take the 'Plate and China Room' as an example. This is the first room that you'll walk into off the entrance hall, and your eyes are met by cabinets stuffed with golden plates and cups and knives and silver swords in scabbards... big huge dinner services too, given to him by the grateful heads of Europe, happy that he booted Napoleon off the throne. It's a bit like the trophy room at Wembley, and I was half expecting to see the FA Cup on show.
The ground floor isn't much to look at after that, just a few entrance halls where they keep the reception desk. But if you head downstairs then you will find a little one-room museum that is well worth a visit. Alongside some old coins and a rack of medals is some real standout stuff. They've got his beloved horse's saddle cloth in there (you can see a statue of him sitting on Copenhagen outside the front) and Wellington's very own death mask. Apparently it was modelled directly from his face three days after he died, so it's all lopsided where his face caved in. And boy-oh-boy did he have a big Roman nose! They must have used up a whole packet of plaster to craft that big conk. They've got a cast of his hands as well, for some reason, and on the top shelf is another death mask -- this time of his nemesis, Napoleon.
I should probably pause at this moment to say a few words about Napoleon, because he's as much a star of this house as Wellington. Everywhere that you go you will see the two of them sharing the limelight. If there's a picture of Wellington on one wall, then there will invariably be one of the French Emperor too. It's almost like Wellington was obsessed with him. He chased this guy around Europe for years and when he finally beat him... Napoleon escapes and gets the whole ball rolling again. When Wellington finally beats him at Waterloo he doesn't know what to do with himself. Where is his nemesis now? It looks like Wellington surrounded himself with pictures and portraits of the little fella to bring back some wartime memories. It seems a bit odd to me, though. Imagine if Churchill had plastered Chartwell with pictures of Hitler.
The main stairwell is a good case in point. It winds its way up two floors to the roof, but right at the base is a monumental stone statue of Napoleon -- butt-naked, save for a fig leaf on his privates. I always thought that he was a squat little bloke (and a bit of a chubster), but this statue makes him look like Adonis. This statue is of an athlete, not a fat French fella. Imagine if Churchill had a statue of Hitler in his hall, totally starkers, save for a green leaf and a silly little moustache. That would be totally crazy, wouldn't it? What on earth was the Duke thinking?
As you head up the stairs you will see some of the hundreds of paintings on display, primarily of kings and queens and generals. But when you get to the first floor landing have a pause, and look at the two portraits of Wellington and Napoleon. Then compare the French general to his statue down below. Can you spot the difference? It's like comparing Danny DeVito to Arnie in that movie "Twins". They can't possibly be of the same man.
On the first floor are the 'State rooms', which are like mini-versions of the ones at Buckingham Palace. The colours are quite similar -- it's all deep reds and yellows and golds. All of the walls are covered in oils and portraits -- stuff that he looted from the spoils, or was awarded from his wars. Napoleon is everywhere. It's as if Wellington is still doing battle with him in the walls, to see who can take up the most space.
The 'Dining Room' is where I stopped and had some time to think. Have a little imagine at what has taken place in this room -- it's where all the victorious soldiers sat eating dinner year after year, on the anniversary of the battle. Imagine thirty old granddads swapping war stories and sharing memories of World War II.
The 'Striped Drawing Room' is where a lot of the most interesting pictures are, including the most famous portrait of the young Duke in his red crimson tunic. Look out for the one of Nelson too, and William Pitt above the door. The best of the bunch is the long shot of Waterloo, at the very height of the fighting. It's one of the very few paintings in the house that depicts a live battle. Smoke is drifting across the hills from all the cannons blasting back and forth, turning the blue sky into a muddy, bloody brown, whilst waves of soldiers are rolling across the hills to join in the slaughter.
The best room in the house is the 'Waterloo Gallery'. You're not allowed to take any photos inside, unfortunately, but it reminds me an awful lot of the King's Gallery at Kensington Palace (so have a quick look at that picture instead). The walls are stuffed with more of his loot -- pictures he's either nabbed or been given by the victors. He's got some real good ones up there too -- by Rubens, Reynolds and Velasquez. The subjects jump from kings and queens to religious scenes and landscapes. There is also a sizeable one of Mary I (Bloody Mary) at the far end -- a strange queen to have hanging on his wall. But I suppose you can't be too choosy about the subject matter when you're looting them from a baggage train. Keep an eye out for the big one of Charles I on horseback too (you can hardly miss it). I'm sure that I've seen this painting about ten times before -- it's following me around London. You can see similar images hanging at Kensington Palace and the National Gallery. It's also the same pose that is shown on the statue by Nelson's Column.
The last little room on the tour is the 'Portico Dining Room', which has some nice curiosities in the cabinet by the window. You can see a lock of Copenhagen's horse hair, and the Duke's old telescope and false teeth. They've also got a walking stick that doubled-up as a hearing-aid (it sounds daft, but it's true!). And of course there are some more pictures of Napoleon on the wall, except that this time we've got his brothers and Josephine too.
A tip: Try and coincide your visit to Apsley House with the 'Changing the Guard' ceremony at Horse Guards. If you stand at one of the first-floor windows then you'll be treated to an elevated view of the horses trooping their way down from the barracks in Hyde Park. They'll march straight past the house at 10.45 AM, and return the same way at approx 11.40 AM (except on Sundays, when everything tales place one hour earlier).
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