Apsley House and the Wellington Arch have been updated with new technology and a special exhibition to mark the upcoming 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
A feted military hero and politician the 1st Duke of Wellington, or the ‘Iron Duke’, is probably best known for his resounding victory over Napoleon Bonaparte of France in the battle near the village of Waterloo in what is now Belgium.
The new exhibition at the Wellington Arch just off Hyde Park explores the battle itself – there’s an animated tabletop display showing the timeline of events and lots of paraphernalia related to the event, including military dispatches and the Duke’s highly ornamented sabre which would have hung at his side. There are early Wellington boots too. Apart from the exhibition, the best feature of the Wellington arch is it’s open-air balconies. Up on the top floor, these offer a commanding view of the traffic circling this great central London monument…
Across the road from the triumphal arch you’ll find Apsley House, which was the Duke’s London home until his death in 1852. The house was reopened just yesterday after a four month closure for refurbishment. Here they’ve introduced some rather exciting new technology – smartphone-like visitor guides that are a real improvement on the old audio guides that big museums and stately homes usually rely on. In the lobby there’s also a newly-commissioned ‘painting’ – a computer-generated line drawing by artist Michael Craig-Martin which changes colour as the viewer watches. According to the staff if you wait long enough the 1st Duke resembles a zombie, with green skin and red eyes!
The rooms at Apsley House are, as you might imagine, sumptuous but on my visit I was particularly taken by a few of them – the first of which was the very dimly lit museum room just off the grand entrance hall on the ground floor. Here Wellington’s Prussian dinner service is on display – a gift from Frederick William III the 64 desert plates show scenes from Wellington’s life. There’s also a 4 foot high green obelisk – the centre piece of the service – which records all of the Duke’s grand titles up to that point. This room also contains the Wellington shield and matching candelabra – these incredibly richly ornamented items were gifts from the bankers and merchants of London, given in 1814. The shield alone cost £7000 to make – it’s worth many millions today.
Up on the first floor, the most impressive space is the Waterloo Room. This grand banqueting chamber is part of an extension added to Apsley House in 1830 and built specifically to allow 80+ people to dine together at the annual Waterloo banquet, which continues to this day on the anniversary of Wellington’s great victory. This room contains two huge candelabra made of polished Siberian stone and a table centrepiece to rival anything just down the road at Buckingham Palace – 3 feet wide and almost 20 feet long it’s the biggest silver gilt object I’ve ever seen.
Descend the stairs down into the basement and visitors will discover a rather more sombre room, focused on a morbid subject – Wellington’s funeral. On one wall there’s a long panorama of all of the horses and soldiers that made up the huge funeral cortege that followed the coffin to St Paul’s Cathedral, where the Duke is buried. Also displayed in this room are all of the Duke of Wellington’s medals and the heraldic ‘stars’ that he was awarded over his lifetime.
Apsley House also houses the most unlikely of objects associated with the 1st Duke of Wellington – a more-than-lifesize statue of Napoleon Bonaparte made by Italian sculptor Canova. Showing Napoleion as a nude Mars, the Roman god of war, it was given to the Duke by the Prince Regent (later George IV) in 1817. It must have greatly amused the Duke to have a ridiculous statue of his great rival in pride of place at Apsley House – no doubt it provided a talking point for his many guests as they ascended the stairs to the grand rooms above.
Sadly I have no photographs of the interior to share with you – Apsley House is one of those great houses where they continue to frown on visitors taking snaps.
Visits to Apsley House cost £9.20 for adults (with gift aid). For £11 you can combine that with the Wellington Arch to get the full picture of the ‘Iron Duke’.