Who else but Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington and hero of the Peninsular Wars and the Battle of Waterloo, would live at such a grand address as ‘Number One, London’? Also known as Apsley House after its first owner, Lord Apsley, the building earned its nickname because it was the first house passed by visitors to London after the toll gates at Knightsbridge. It still enjoys an imposing location, standing alone at Hyde Park Corner, on the southeast corner of Hyde Park, facing the busy roundabout at the centre of which is the Wellington Arch.
A grade 1 listed building, it is now run by English Heritage as a museum celebrating the life of the first Duke of Wellington – and the current Duke still uses part of the building as a part-time residence. Originally built in red brick by Robert Adam, and later clad in elegant Bath stone on Wellington’s instructions, the house is perhaps one of the only preserved examples of an English aristocratic town house from its period. The rooms and interior decorations have been maintained as far as possible in their original style and furnishings, including a room furnished in striped satin, redolent of a military campaign tent.
In 1807 the house was purchased by Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley, but in 1817 financial difficulties forced him to sell it to his more famous brother, by then Duke of Wellington. The Duke wanted a London base from which to pursue his new career in politics, and a place to socialise on a grand scale with banquets and parties. Wellington employed the architect Benjamin Dean Wyatt to make extensive renovations, including the addition of a three-storey extension, a State Dining Room, a pedimented portico, and the ‘Waterloo Gallery’, named of course after the Duke’s famous victory over Napoleon. Every year a special banquet is served to celebrate the date – 18 June 1815.
The house is grand and stately, with elegant neoclassical interior decorations by Adam and Wyatt, but its scale is not overwhelming, and visitors are free to wander through the rooms which are open to the public. The museum boasts the first Duke’s impressive collection of paintings by masters such as Goya, Rubens, Van Dyck, Caravaggio, Correggio, Brueghel, Steen, de Hooch, Wilkie and Lawrence, together with opulent china and silver plate, much of which was given to the Duke by grateful European kings and emperors following his successes over Napoleon. After the Battle of Victoria in 1813, Wellington acquired the Spanish Royal Collection, including Velazquez’s Waterseller of Seville, and an 11-foot high nude statue of Napoleon by Canova, which guards the ornate central stairwell. The basement gallery contains an exhibition of memorabilia, including his uniform and death mask (he died at Apsley House in 1852).
The museum charts Wellington’s rise from Ireland in 1790 to military victories in India, Spain, Portugal, France and Belgium, as well as his term as Tory Prime Minister in 1828-30 – during which he earned the nickname ‘the Iron Duke’ for installing iron shutters at Apsley House after rioters broke its windows in protest of his Reform Bill. The house offers a wonderful illustrated slice of early nineteenth-century history, and as such is a must for those with an interest in this period of British military and social history. It is also an opportunity to glimpse inside a grand neoclassical town house in the heart of a busy metropolis.
Opposite Apsley House, in the centre of the Hyde Park Corner roundabout, is the triumphal Wellington Arch. Conceived by George IV to commemorate British victories in the Napoleonic Wars (together with Marble Arch), the Arch also provided a grand entrance into central London from the west of the city, and was intended to reflect the importance of Apsley House. The arch was built to a design by Decimus Burton, and in 1846 it was selected as the location for a statue of the Duke of Wellington. The statue, the largest equestrian statue ever created at the time, was cast from guns captured at Waterloo, and caused considerable controversy and ridicule, and when the arch was moved to its current location, the statue was removed to Aldershot. It was replaced with a quadriga statue with an angel of peace descending in a chariot drawn by four horses. Hollow inside, the arch contains a small museum detailing its history and uses.