Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Apsley House Part One: In which the Brimstone Butterfly meets her Waterloo

When I was young I was quite green with envy when a work colleague announced that she and some fellow students were going to take tea with a Duchess at Apsley House, the ancestral mansion of the Dukes of Wellington which, unlike Spencer House in Green Park, is still very much a family home today. I felt a similar pang of jealousy when the celebrated chef Simon Hopkinson announced, after our radio broadcast, that he was off to spend the weekend as a house guest at Knole, the magnificent stately home in Kent. His kind gift of fresh bread rolls infused with truffle oil and a portion of glorious rice pudding made with Jersey cream proved some consolation. Much as I enjoy wandering around the state rooms, I love the unexpected glimpses into areas of a stately home rarely seen by the general public, such as Horace Walpole’s bedroom, which was still being renovated when the Aviatrix and I visited his Gothic villa at Strawberry Hill. I thought of my long forgotten colleague as I made my way from the Wellington Arch to Apsley House. (On the subject of the Wellington Arch, yesterday I granted a reader’s request that she might be allowed to include one of my photographs in her forthcoming book about Angels and the London Olympics). With regard to Apsley House, I wish I had had the presence of mind to ask my colleague about her visit as the ducal family apartments are not on the official tour.

The original mansion was built in the 1770s for Henry Bathurst, Lord Apsley. Given the size of Wellington’s ego, as witnessed in his truculent behaviour over his equally oversized statue on Wellington Arch, I am surprised he did not insist that the building’s name be changed to match his own. Bathurst had commissioned Robert Adam to build him a new townhouse by Hyde Park. The most celebrated architect of his generation Robert Adam also remodelled my beloved Kenwood House, Osterley House and Syon House amongst other commissions. In 1807 Apsley house was bought by one Richard Wellesley. Ten years later Richard sold the house to his younger brother Arthur, better known to posterity as the Duke of Wellington. Arthur promptly set about remodelling and extending the house drawing on the talents of Benjamin Dean Wyatt. Not only was he now a military hero, Wellington also had political ambitions and was for a time Prime Minister. However, his personal politics served to diminish his popularity with the general public. An advocate of the Catholic Reform Bill he was keen to ameliorate the sanctions placed on them in public life. On the other hand, Wellington was very much the reactionary when it came to Electoral reform, vehemently opposing changes which would have extended the suffrage to working class men. Indeed, it was a result of his political activity that Wellington gained the sobriquet of Iron Duke. It had nothing to do with his military prowess but everything to with the fact he had hastily installed iron shutters at Apsley House to protect his home from a vengeful mob. In the 1940s the then Duke handed the house over to English Heritage, with the stipulation that the family would retain use of the upper floors and parts of the basement.

The external appearance of the house underwent a marked change when it was encased in honey coloured Bath stone in stark contrast to Robert Adam’s red brick. The interior of the house is now a curious mix of the original Robert Adam and the later Benjamin Dean Wyatt.
Harriette Wilson
The current entrance to the house forms part of the Wyatt extension. The walls and the two plaster columns are painted to resemble marble. A large scale picture dominated a wall: it depicts one of the annual banquets held in the Waterloo Gallery at Apsley House to celebrate the Duke’s famous military victory over Napoleon. The picture includes a small number of women hovering near the doorway. They were not permitted to dine with the menfolk but were permitted to take a peek at proceedings from the door. I doubt if the 1st Duchess of Wellington was present. Like that other great British hero of the era, Admiral Nelson, Wellington did not reciprocate the love of his long suffering wife Kitty and tried to keep her out of his day to day life as much as possible. Unlike Nelson, Wellington observed the outward proprieties and was reconciled with his spouse before she died. But in common with a great many other men of his class, Wellington had his mistresses, the most well known of which was the courtesan Harriette Wilson. After her career drew to end, Harriet strove to rebuild her fortunes by embarking on another as an author and blackmailer. Having written a detailed memoir of her life she informed her former armours that, in return for a specified pecuniary consideration, their names would be omitted from her long list of conquests. When the Duke of Wellington was presented with this proposal he was said to have retorted angrily: ”Publish and be damned”.  

On the left-hand side of the hall is the Wellington museum. Even in the first Duke’s time it was something of a popular tourist spot. A leather Regency porter’s chair takes pride of place near the door. The museum itself was in semi darkness when I saw it  to protect some of the more fragile objects on display. These included flags hanging from the ceiling which bear both Napoleon’s initials and a wreath of laurel leaves to denote his imperial status as an emperor.

Grateful European rulers heaped titles and precious gifts on the victorious Wellington, including the extraordinary Egyptian dining table centrepiece. A label said it was 6.7 metres in length. I doubt if the Duke would have approved of metric measurements, as opposed to imperial, being used in HIS home. The scale model of the Egyptian Temple complex at Luxor, rendered in porcelain bisque, was commissioned from the Sèvres factory as a present from a guilty Napoleon to his former wife Josephine, whom he had dumped for wife number two when Josephine proved to be barren.  Josephine turned down the extravagant present, perhaps deciding it was tad too flamboyant for a woman who was no longer an Empress.

There were other costly items on display including various dinner services and silverware but none captured my fancy as much as the Egyptian centrepiece and accompanying 86 piece dinner service. Part of my interest arose from having studied Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (I failed miserably in my attempts to  translate any of the crisp hieroglyphs). Another reason for my interest was that I had paid a number of visits to the real Luxor in the past. The centrepiece service was based on how the temple complex would have looked in its ancient heyday, but much of it was still familiar to me.

The Robert Adam entrance hall leads off from Wyatt’s extension. A much smaller affair it served as a waiting room in Wellington’s time and deprived visitors to the museum of the opportunity of sneaking into other parts of the house unobserved. There are a number of antique busts on display as well as busts of George III, Prince Albert and Wellington himself, all of which are thought to have been placed there after Wellington’s time. The walls have been painted to imitate marble. The red and beige Minton tiles were introduced by the 2nd Duke. 

The backstairs descend to the lower floor, where the former kitchen and other service areas used to be housed. Last year I explored the kitchens within the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. The shelves were filled with an impressive collection of copper pots, pans and jelly moulds. Whilst I was there, I tried in vain to determine what the initials DWL, surmounted by a coronet, stood for. I discovered later that some of these copper utensils had belonged to the Duke of Wellington’s household at Apsley House. Others had come from the kitchens of the Dukes of Northumberland at Syon House.  As neither residence had opened up their former kitchens to the public, such utensils were deemed superfluous whereas, by contrast, the Regency kitchens at the Pavilion had been denuded of utensils in the 19th century when it ceased being a royal palace. A small room in the basement area at Apsley House contained a fireplace (how I long for a roaring open fireplace as I shiver in the unheated state garret at Brimstone Butterfly Towers) and various mementos relating to the 1st Duke of Wellington, including a pair of his eponymous boots and a hand painted travelling tea service with a leather carry case The Brimstone Butterfly’s cannot lay claim to such luxuries when she flits from place to place. A plastic bottle filled with water from the artisan wells at Brimstone Butterfly Towers represents the zenith of travelling in style for her.

Robert Adam designed the elegant staircase which Wyatt later extended. I can well imagine the Brimstone Butterfly flouncing up the steps in a Regency ballgown. Given that the frieze work near the domed skylight features the letter W for Wellington that at least must date from the 19th century. The present ducal family have apartments at the top of the house, where I imagine my colleague partook of tea with the duchess.
What cannot be missed in the hallway is the gigantic nude marble statue of Napoleon in the guise of Mars, the Peacemaker. One has to wonder quite what Napoleon was thinking of when he commissioned Antonio Canova to produce the work. No one would ever have mistaken the god like body of the statue for Napoleon’s own distinctly short and stocky build.  It seems even Napoleon eventually became embarrassed by the statue and had it covered up. In his hand the statue of Napoleon holds a small statue of the winged goddess of victory Nike. Napoleon’s own fabled string of victories was finally ended by Wellington on the battlefield of Waterloo. The Canova statue is a most singular trophy of war. It was bought by the British Government and the Prince Regent presented it to Wellington. I find it odd that Wellington would wish to gaze upon a gigantic nude statue of his foremost enemy every time he ascended or descended his stairs. On the other hand it did mean that no visitor could be left in any doubt as to precisely who the statue represented and why it had ended up in the London townhouse.

The Piccadilly Drawing Room ranks as one of most favourite rooms in the house, probably because it so clearly shows the influence of Robert Adam in the delicate white and gilt ceiling, frieze and elegant marble fireplace. I love the yellow striped watered silk and satin walls and the crystal chandelier. From this room Wellington would have been able to admire his oversized equestrian statue, which he fought to keep on top of the Wellington Arch during his life time. Once he died, the statue was dismantled and carted off to the army town of Aldershot, later to be replaced by the spectacular Quadriga (my picture of which is now destined to be immortalised in print).
The Portico Drawing Room, which was also the family dining room, takes its name from the Portico added by Benjamin Dean Wyatt when he encased Robert Adam’s redbrick mansion in Bath stone. The white marble Robert Adam chimney piece features a Grecian sphinx in its central panel alongside a bas-relief of a seated goddess Psyche and a winged Cupid. The ceiling features Grecian vases, sphinxes, and small boys frolicking with mythical and not so mythical creatures, including stags. The latter were heraldic beasts of the Bathurst family who had first built Apsley House. There were two huge gilt pier windows at other end of the room, placed there to reflect as much light as possible when remodelling by Wyatt led to the removal of certain windows. Paintings in this room included a  (thankfully fully clothed) portrait of Napoleon and his sometime empress, Josephine and Charles Arbuthnot. The Duke had a long standing crush on the latter’s wife, Harriet, who he regarded as a close friend. After Harriet’s death Wellington invited her widower to live with him at Apsley House.

I shall return to the subject of Apsley House anon.