Hands up all those who've circumnavigated that London racetrack known as Hyde Park Corner...
Come on, you can do better than that – I was hoping for some audience participation! So, once again:
Hands up all those who've circumnavigated that London racetrack known as Hyde Park Corner...
That’s better – quite a good show of hands this time.
Now, hands up those who spotted the large white arch that's planted in the middle of the racetrack (Clue: It has a huge statue of four horses and a chariot on top).
And now, how about the big, cream-coloured house with an Acropolis-like portico that stands grandly on the opposite side of the road - just before the chicane that takes you into Park Lane and down the long straight to that other arch, the Marble one, where once stood the public gallows at Tyburn?
Okay, lots of you have seen them - possibly from a car, a black cab or a red, double-decker bus. But, how many of you have been up to the top of that arch and looked up the horses' nostrils and over the wall of the Queen's back garden? Or, inside
that huge, cream house by day and by night?
Well, despite living in or near the capital for most of our long lives, we'd never done any of these things either. We'd only ever driven our car in the area, following taxis cautiously around the circuit and stopping every now and again on the grid waiting for lights to turn to green. Until a few months ago that is. Then, we took the Tube to Hyde Park Corner station and went on foot, braving non-stop traffic, to reach first the house and then the arch. Apsley House
There used to be a toll gate where the Hyde Park Screen now stands, at what was then the western entrance to London and well before there was such a thing as Park Lane. Today, it's here, at the formal entrance to Hyde Park, that you'll find Apsley House
, the aforementioned big, cream house with the portico.
As it was once the first house which those travelling into London from the countryside would encounter after the toll gates, its popular nickname was Number One, London. It was part of a line of great houses on Piccadilly demolished to widen Park
Lane. Its official address remains 149 Piccadilly. It's one of the most conspicuous residences in London, yet thousands pass by every day without realising its significance or the treasures that lie within.
The original house was built by the fashionable architect Robert Adam between 1771 and 1778 for Henry Bathurst, the 1st Baron Apsley, from whence comes its name. It cost the princely sum of £10,000 - probably as much as £13million at today's value.
About thirty years later, it was sold to Richard, Marquess Wellesley on his return from India, where he'd been Governor General. In 1817, Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington (he of wellie boots fame), bought the house from Richard, his younger brother. He’d been given £700,000 by a grateful nation following his victories over Napoleon's forces, this being intended to help him construct a 'Waterloo Palace' in the country. Instead, Wellington set about expanding and altering Apsley House on a grand scale and then filled it, museum-like, with trophies, paintings and portraits illustrating his achievements. In 1947, Gerald Wellesley, the 7th Duke of Wellington, gave the house and its art collections to the nation. He retained part of the house as private
apartments and these remain a family residence to this very day (although these private apartments are mainly on the second floor of the north side of the house, you’ll find a notice pointing the way to the door of His Grace the 8th Duke of Wellington (96 years old on 2 July) , which is just around the corner from the public entrance at the front)
The house is cared for by English Heritage and, unfortunately, interior photography isn't permitted. Inadequately, therefore, I'll try to describe a few of the highlights.
Inside, the house has been carefully and extensively restored to make it look as much as possible as it would have been in the first Duke of Wellington’s day, right down to the arrangement of pictures on the walls (dictated by reference to contemporary paintings of the rooms). This was never really meant to be a family home but a place to receive and impress the most important people of the time - and it shows!
The art collection you’ll see here is one of the finest in the whole of London – and the Duke didn’t have to spend very much to acquire it all
either! After the Battle of Waterloo, he was showered with gifts - porcelain, for example, from King Frederick William III of Prussia, and from the King of Saxony, Frederick Augustus IV, to thank him for saving their thrones. All of it's beautifully painted with minutely-detailed scenes commemorating historic battles fought by Wellington and his forces. There’s also an Austrian Service presented by Emperor Francis II of Austria and plates in priceless Sèvres porcelain from King Louis XVIII of France. The quality of all this porcelain is outstanding, but there are so many plates, tureens, salt cellars and ice buckets that only a selection can be displayed in this private treasury that the Duke called his ‘museum’.
There are 165 paintings from the Spanish Royal Collection too. They’d been discovered after the 1813 Battle of Vitoria in the abandoned baggage carriage of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, who’d looted them from the palaces of Spain (of which he was king at the time). They were given to Wellington three years later by King Ferdinand VII of Spain. That collection alone contains four masterpieces by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) and the magnificent ‘The Agony in the Garden’ by Correggio (c.1494-1534), which was Wellington’s
favourite. There are also paintings by Goya and Rubens, among many other well-known and little-known artists. Also displayed in the house are the sword carried by the Duke at Waterloo, as well as that of his great foe Napoleon.
The rooms themselves are richly decorated with red and gold silk wallpapers, white doors with gilded panels, and ornate furnishings. The Waterloo Gallery is particularly impressive, 28 metres (90 feet) long and two storeys high. This incredible space was used by the Duke of Wellington for his annual Waterloo Banquet (to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon of course!) and raised Apsley House from an aristocratic town house to palatial status. We visited by day and by night. During the day, the room would have been flooded with light from its five or six tall windows (although the light levels are kept low now to preserve the colours of furnishings and artworks). By night, sliding shutters fitted with mirrors are pulled across these windows, reflecting the flickering light from chandeliers and torchères and, intentionally, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. Wonderful.
My all-time favourite works of art were:
◊ the Wellington Shield (sometimes called the
Waterloo Shield), a huge silver-gilt shield presented to the Duke in 1822 by the Merchants and Bankers of the City of London to celebrate the victory at Waterloo, which had heralded a period of prosperity for the capital. It’s magnificent – a metre-wide, glittering, plate-like ‘gold’ object with Wellington and horses in battle leaping out of its centre and ten vividly realistic reliefs of scenes from the Peninsular Campaign surrounding it.
◊ the silver centrepiece of the Portuguese Service displayed on the seemingly endless table in the State Dining Room. It’s actually only a little bit of the 1,000 pieces of silverware commissioned by the Portuguese Regency Council and presented to Wellington in 1816. Again, this commemorates victories over Napoleon in the Peninsular War of 1808-1814. The tall central piece has figures representing the four continents paying tribute to the united armies of Portugal, Britain and Spain, all encircled by dancing nymphs.
and, perhaps the most stunning:
◊ Antonio Canova's statue of Napoleon
portrayed as Mars the Peacemaker that looms 3.5 metres (11½ feet) high beside the principal staircase. This colossal marble statue was commissioned by Napoleon during his period as First Consul and was completed by Canova (1757-1822) in 1806.
The winged woman...
A close-up of the winged woman descending onto the quadriga, taken from the viewing terrace at the top of the arch.
Napoleon carries a staff in his left hand and, in the palm of his right hand, a gilded Nike (no, not trainers – ‘Nike’ means ‘Victory’ in Greek and in mythology she was the goddess of strength, speed and victory – hence the brand name!). Over his left shoulder is draped a cape but, other than a strategically-placed fig leaf, he’s naked. The statue didn’t arrive in Paris until 1811, by which time Napoleon was Emperor and felt he’d prefer a more modest self-image. So, it was hastily buried in the depths of the Louvre for five years. It was then bought by the British government and presented to the Duke of Wellington. He could hardly refuse it, but had to have the floor reinforced to take the giant statue’s enormous weight.
I’m not privy to what, if anything, is concealed by Napoleon’s fig leaf – but there’s at least one person other than Canova who certainly does, or did, know. You see, during WWII, most of the movable contents of Apsley House were taken away for safe-keeping and an elderly woman was employed to keep everything else dusted. During a particularly fierce air raid, a nearby explosion detached
These dramatic horses are replicated in Piccadilly Circus, where you can examine them even closer than from the Wellington Arch's viewing terraces.
the fig leaf - causing much embarrassment when she emerged from her shelter to do the day’s dusting! The Wellington Arch (not to be confused with The Marble Arch)
Just across the road from Apsley House, in the centre of the racetrack, there’s an equestrian statue of Wellington on a monumental base. Beyond that is The Wellington Arch. This is one of two well-known triumphal arches in this part of London, designed in the 1820s by two of the finest architects of the day.
The first of these brilliant architechts, John Nash (1752-1835), was responsible for the layout of much of Regency London – Regent Street, the terraces around Regent’s Park, and remodelling of Buckingham House to create the Palace, among them. He also designed the white Carrara-marble-clad monument that now stands on a large traffic island at the junction of Oxford Street, Park Lane and Edgware Road close to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. It was originally intended as the formal gateway to Buckingham Palace and, indeed, that’s where it stood from 1832-33 until being taken down 17 years later, when the Palace forecourt was extended. It was then re-erected, with modifications, at its present site.
That building is known as the Marble Arch
and, while similar, is not to be confused with The Wellington Arch to which I refer in this blog.
The Wellington Arch
was the work of Decimus Burton (1800-1881). I did a project on this arch at my secondary school and, while that was more than 50 years ago, I still remember bits of trivia about this edifice. For example, it’s hollow inside and once housed the second-smallest police station in the capital. On one side of the arch, there’s a lift up to the viewing terraces – with good views of Hyde Park Corner, Green Park and Constitution Hill, and a glimpse into the private gardens of Buckingham Palace. The other side is actually a ventilation shaft for the London Underground.
This arch was intended to form a grand entrance to Green Park from Piccadilly. Erected between 1828 and 1830, it originally stood in line with the present Hyde Park Screen immediately to the west of Apsley House. Amid controversy and derision, in 1846 the 100-feet-tall arch was topped by an ugly and truly humungous bronze statue of the Duke of Wellington on horseback. It was 8.5 metres (28 feet) high,
From the top of the Arch
A view up Constitution Hill.
the largest equestrian figure ever made, and totally out of proportion. However, it stayed up there for the next 35 years or so before increasingly-heavy traffic necessitated widening of the road and removal of the arch. The opportunity was seized to permanently remove the objectionable statue, which ended up being taken to a new site near the army garrison church at Aldershot in the county of Hampshire, where it can still be seen today. A new, small statue of the Duke on a horse was created and this is on the monument mentioned earlier. The arch was re-erected on what became a huge traffic island, its present site, but with nothing on top.
In 1891, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, attended a banquet where he noticed an interesting plaster sculpture made by one Adrian Jones. It was of a chariot pulled by four wildly rearing horses whose driver had failed to notice a tall, winged figure landing behind him. This inspired the Prince to ask Jones to create a scaled-up version of this quadriga to become the focal point of The Wellington Arch. It took a while to raise the cash and Jones started work on
it in 1908.
It’s a large and complex structure. At around 8.8 metres (29 feet) high and weighing in at almost 40 tonnes it’s the largest bronze sculpture in Europe. At first glance, it seems to be four stallions pulling a war chariot with a winged woman, the spirit of War perhaps, appearing pleased that the country’s enemies were being crushed underfoot. However, when you ascend to the viewing terrace, you discover that the driver’s a 10-year-old boy and the reins are slack. The horses are rearing up of their own accord, pulling up in mid-charge, and the woman is the angel of Peace carrying a wreath of olive branches. The war is over. Scroll down for a few more photos.
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