Apsley House review
I've got a soft spot for the Duke of Wellington. If I had to choose somebody to model myself on then I'd probably go for him, or Oliver Cromwell. Or possibly Luke Skywalker. The reason I like the Duke is because I see him as a stiff upper lip Englishman. He was a proper Englishman: he knew what he was doing and just got on with it. He looked after his army, respected his enemy, stayed loyal to his drunk and troubled wife -- he was like a knight from chivalrous times -- and he managed to save Europe not once, but twice. (Churchill only did it once.) And he never got shot. In all the wars he fought he never got shot once -- he had colleagues lose their legs and head in the saddle next-door but he came away without so much as a scratch on him. I'd be surprised if he even got mud on his shoe. This guy was the prototype for an Englishman.
Apsley House was where he lived after the Battle of Waterloo. Following his big victory the government bestowed a dukedom on him and promised a pot of money to build a mansion, but what did he do? -- and this was typical of the guy -- he decided to buy his brother's old house to help him out of a financial hole. And back in those days it wasn't even a grand house. It was more like a three-story townhouse on the end of Piccadilly (Piccadilly extended all the way up to the park in those days). The Duke then spent a fortune on it, adding some new rooms and a portico, and by the time he died he had the Wellington Arch opposite.
This setting was rather ruined in the 1960s when they decided to bulldoze the top end of Piccadilly and send the ugly roundabout straight through it, stranding Apsley House on Hyde Park Corner. I'm not sure the Duke would have loved it so much had he known how much traffic he'd have thundering past his window.
Fortunately it's like a different world once you step through the door. The first thing you notice is the silence -- the reverential kind of silence you find inside churches. You pay your money and pick up an audioguide and then it's straight into his trophy room. This is where he stashed all of the gold plates he was awarded by the grateful heads of Europe. There are hundreds of them, of every type of size and shape, from saucers up to shields -- all stashed in cabinets with bright spotlights shining on them. It's not unlike the Crown Jewels room at the Tower of London.
After that comes the giant stone statue of Napoleon standing naked by his stairs. This was originally commissioned by Napoleon himself who was too embarrassed to show it (it looks like a naked Adonis, when by this stage of his career he was rather short and portly). Following his defeat at Waterloo Wellington went out of his way to find it, buy it and strengthen the floor to install it. I wonder what his reasoning was? This was his enemy, the guy he'd been chasing around Europe for years, and now he'd have to stare at him every time he ascended the stairs. Wellington must have secretly admired the guy -- there is no other explanation. Half the rooms in the house have got a portrait of him on one wall and Wellington on another. So they're still squaring up to each other even now, still sizing one another up from different sides of their wallpaper battlefield.
One of the benefits of defeating Napoleon was that the Duke never had to fork out for any furnishings -- the grateful heads of Europe kept sending him expensive thank you gifts. One of the best bequests came after the Battle of Vitoria when he captured the baggage train of Napoleon's brother, Jospeh Bonaparte. It turned out that Bonaparte had been busy looting artworks from the Spanish Royal collection so Wellington promptly sent them back to Spain (what a gentleman!), and King Ferdinand VII sent them straight back with a thank you note. Keep them, he said. Keep them as a well-deserved reward. So there's a lesson for you: honesty does pay. You can see pieces by Titian, Velazquez, Goya, Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens, plus a giant image of Charles I which you might recognise from Downton Abbey (there's another version of it at Kensington Palace and the National Gallery -- you can see that painting all over London).
My favourite paintings can be found in the Striped Drawing Room. That's where he hung portraits of his fallen generals and veterans from Waterloo. Other famous faces include William Pitt and Nelson.
The finest room in the house is the Waterloo Gallery. This was where he held his big dinners on the anniversary of the battle. He invited generals, dukes, ambassadors and even King George IV in the early days, and they'd sit there eating and drinking and reminiscing about their war wounds.
When you get to the Portico Drawing Room remember to check out the memorabilia in the cabinets: they've got the Duke's false teeth in there, a lock of his beloved horse's hair, and even a walking stick that doubled up as a hearing aid. There's another little museum downstairs that contains his medal collection and a plaster-cast of Napoleon's death mask.
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