Lady Jane Wellesley writes about the Duke of Wellington’s house: No.1 London
During the Second World War, with bombing continuing, the King and Queen arrived with a van at a dark mansion on Hyde Park Corner and supervised the removal of pictures for safekeeping at Windsor.
We have cause to feel grateful to them, for today these pictures are among the many treasures – including four paintings by Velázquez – that form the Wellington Collection at Apsley House, one of London’s most interesting but least-known museums.
“I remember one day walking through the Waterloo Gallery with Queen Elizabeth,” my father, the eighth Duke of Wellington, told me, “and she vividly recalled the occasion. Apparently most of the paintings had been taken off the walls and were lying on the floor.”
Not long after Waterloo my ancestor, the first Duke of Wellington, bought Apsley House – original address No 1 London – from his broke eldest brother.
As his London residence it became the setting for many glittering occasions, not least the annual Waterloo dinner, when veterans of the battle gathered. In June 1852, only weeks before he died aged 83, the Duke showed his customary vigour when, at the close of the dinner, he called for his carriage and went on to two other parties.
His longevity has descended the generations: my father is well into his 95th year. Recently he hosted a reception to launch a charity, Waterloo 200, which looks to create a lasting legacy for the bicentenary of the battle in 2015. As we walked together up the staircase, we passed the colossal Canova statue of a naked Napoleon, depicted as Mars the Peacemaker.
My father said that as a small child
“my favourite game was sliding down the banisters, and if I wasn’t very careful, I would collide with Napoleon’s outstretched arm”.
The statue survived but years later, after one particularly severe air raid, the fig-leaf fell off. The blushing housekeeper demanded that it be repaired immediately.
When my grandfather inherited the dukedom in 1943, one of the first things he did was to discuss with my father the future of Apsley House. Quite apart from war damage, the house was in dire need of restoration.
My grandfather’s predecessor, his nephew (a Commando who enjoyed only a fleeting tenure of the title before he was killed in action), had once joked that, with careful reconstruction, Apsley House might make
“a jolly good restaurant with a roof garden overlooking the park and a cocktail bar on each floor”. “I don’t think we ever considered that option,” laughs my father, “but we both knew that the family could not continue with the responsibility of looking after such an important collection.”
The decision was made to offer it to the nation; in 1952 Apsley House opened its doors as a museum. Part of the house is still lived in by the family, so when in London my father sleeps in his ancestor’s bed, reputed to have once belonged to Napoleon.
Apsley House boasts not only a remarkable collection of pictures but also many of the gifts and trophies showered on the first duke by grateful nations of Europe.
The museum gives a unique insight into the life and achievements of the country’s greatest general. The only shame is that more people do not take advantage of it.
Jane Wellesley © 04.12.09
A Journey Through My Family: The Wellington Story is published by Phoenix.