Thursday, 30 April 2015

Apsley House

Wednesday 29 April 2015

149 Piccadilly, Hyde Park Corner W1J 7NT

After our brief flurry of fame thanks to Alexei at Time Out ( if you missed it!) and the raucous reaction of our nearest and dearest at our being described as 'twinkly pensioners', Linda and I returned to normal, with a visit to Number One, London, as Apsley House is sometimes known.

You will not remember, but we had planned to visit the place after a trip to the Wellington Arch, only to find that it was closed.  This time we checked the website.  Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and not open till 11.00 it said, so we duly arrived and went in. No photography is allowed, though there are many images on the internet, so they are my illustrations.

We were by no means the only people waiting to get in, but being members of English Heritage meant we did not have to queue for tickets. EH does not charge for the audio guides, but we found them of limited value, though the introduction to each room was helpful.  The entrance hall contains many pictures and busts of the Duke of Wellington, since this house is a shrine to the memory of our greatest war leader. (What if the much more beloved Nelson had survived Trafalgar to win more naval battles during the years when there were no victories on land, I wondered)
My favourite picture was of him 'Riding home to retirement in 1853':  no crowds, just an elderly man at the end of a political career.

Next we went into the Museum Room, full of presents from foreign powers, and oddly reminiscent of the Vatican or (for those old enough) the Lenin Museum in the days of the USSR:  a range of silverware, Field Marshals' batons, dinner sets with scenes from his campaigns. In the middle is a table ornament of Egyptian design, originally given by Bonaparte to Josephine as a divorce present, but subsequently presented to Wellington by the restored French monarchy.  We did not like it, though it would certainly have prevented the bad manners (in those days) of talking to the people opposite at table.  The lighting was so dim that reading the captions was a trial. (see below about the brightly lit porcelain displayed in the basement)

The stairwell contains an extraordinary statue of Bonaparte as Mars. Bonaparte was apparently embarrassed (he is wearing nothing but a fig leaf, and was not very tall, not to mention being rather more portly by the time he took delivery of the statue in 1811). Oddly enough, a small version, and without fig leaf, is in the Wallace Collection. More endearing was a picture of the elderly Wellington with Queen Victoria and the infant Prince Arthur.

The landing upstairs displays a full length portrait of Bonaparte in military uniform, but clearly being imperial;  it is paired with a similar sized picture of Wellington, in civvies (he usually wore a blue coat and cream breeches to go into battle, rather than uniform).  So the message is clear:  the triumphalist loses, and the modest man wins. Both 46 years old at Waterloo, they had both had their military education in France, but there the similarities end, since Wellington had never been a revolutionary and was anyway from a much higher 'class' than his enemy.  Wellington was to regret in later life that his whole image was based on his 'saving' of Europe at Waterloo, but virtually the whole of Apsley House is about his military career.

The upstairs is a circuit, so we began with the striped drawing room, which a contemporary (according to the sound guide) called 'a private Valhalla'. It contains pictures of many of Wellingtons officers, including Beresford, Alava and Murray.  The Piccadilly Room contains a Titian of Danae, though this is not mentioned on the sound guide or in the Room literature, because it has only recently been accepted as an original and displayed here.  Much more interesting was a David Wilkie picture actually commissioned (and paid for) by the Duke, showing old soldiers receiving the news of Waterloo.  There was also rather a good Maes of a maidservant eavesdropping on some lovers.

The Portico Room contains memorabilia of the Duke's old age, including his false teeth and hearing aids.  We should have found it useful to have some kind of a time line, or biography of the man, so we could have put him in the context of his era.  It's all right for people like me, who studied and taught History, but other people may not know what happened when.  

There are two dining rooms.  One is, we supposed, the informal eating place, and the other the magnificent Waterloo Banqueting Room. The table, which used to seat 35 men every year for the anniversary dinner, is crowned with the magnificent silver ornament which was a gift from the Portuguese, Britain's allies throughout the Peninsular War. The names of the battles are surrounded by nymphs and other mythical symbols. We should have appreciated some kind of crib, but neither the audio guides nor the captions had any detail.  Again, some of us know the names and significance of Vittoria, Salamanca, Badajoz, but I'm not sure everyone does.

The portraits round the wall are of the monarchs of the League against Bonaparte, but there are also many 'Old Masters', though a number of them are more from League 1 than the Premiership.  They are almost all in need of cleaning, which seems a pity. There was a little Breughel (Elder) of the animals entering the Ark, but it was frankly dingy. The wonderful Velasquez Water Seller, as well as his portrait of Pope Innocent X are here. Some of the pictures are hung so high that we (well, I actually) had to keep asking the room attendants the titles and artists concerned. They mostly had better eyes than us, but I don't really understand why there cannot be a full list in each room. If I had a couple of Murillos, a Rubens and the odd Correggio I would get them cleaned and hang them so they can be appreciated.

Next we visited the Yellow Drawing Room, which contains Wellington's grand piano, one of the first ever made, by Americus Backers. This website tells you all you could possibly want to know about pianos, but says that the Duke's model is in Edinburgh. The Duke was a more than competent musician, and the sound guides told us that his father had put him in the army to deter him from becoming a professional violinist.

Finally we headed down to the basement, where the loos were handsomely old fashioned. I can only assume that EH, or the current Duke, are not on metered water, as the tradional chain flush was amazingly extravagant.  The stairs down were filled with etchings of Wellington's funeral, almost impossible to see in the dim light, which was a pity.  Similarly, there was a wall of cartoons of the Duke, mostly hostile, but without any explanation at all. Some of us may know why he is depicted as a lobster, though I doubt if it is general knowledge.  EH might like to send someone to look at the way cartoons about Napoleon are on display at the British Museum, or indeed head to the Cartoon Museum.  The other puzzling thing in the basement was a case of porcelain which was brightly lit so we could actually admire the pieces:  puzzling because, in the Museum Room upstairs, the lighting was crepuscular, making it difficult to see the objects and especially the captions. If dim light is a conservation essential, what's going on in the basement?  However we did enjoy some of the other objects: Bonaparte's travelling coffee set, as well as some eagles and Wellington's campaign dining service.

The shop is very stark, containing only material about the man and the battle, in contrast to most EH shops which are full of toys, posters and other fun items.  I suppose this may be because the house is still used by the current Duke of Wellington.

All in all, we very much enjoyed the visit, despite the various criticisms in the account above.  The fact that it had stopped pouring with rain by the time we were ready to leave was a bonus.

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