Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Apsley House Part Two

Just in case it should slip any visitor’s mind what Wellington’s most famous exploit was, he had Wyatt build him the Waterloo Gallery. It is 90 feet in length and two storeys high. In the Duke’s time he insisted that the walls be hung with yellow damask as it constituted his favourite colour scheme, even though his lady love, Harriet Arbuthnot, tried without success to persuade him to use red damask instead. 

However she got her way as far as the gilded overdoors were concerned made, apparently, to her own design. The winged dragons reminded me of the oriental theme at the Royal Pavilion Brighton. There were three fireplaces in the room; one at each end and another in the centre of the room facing the windows. 

A pair of 9 feet high grey Siberian porphyry torchères was given to the 1st Duke by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. The Tsar had intended them for his Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Perhaps, when they were finished he decided they didn’t quite go and so palmed them off on Wellington instead. Not to be outdone, King Charles John XIV of Sweden gave Wellington two huge vases made of Swedish porphyry. The Waterloo Gallery is a suitable palatial setting for such regal gifts, which took pride of place at the annual banquets. 8 concealed ventilation shafts were built into the ceiling to deal with the smoke from the numerous candles at the banquets. Mirrored panels were inserted into the inner side of the shutters so they could be drawn across the windows at night to reflect back the candlelight and keep out the prying eyes of the London mob. Large double height mirrors likewise helped maximise the light in the gallery. According to the guidebook, Arthur was seeking on a more modest scale to emulate Louis XIV’s Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. He made the gallery seem palatial in other respects by having full length portraits of English monarchs: the diminutive King Charles I is shown on horseback. Nearby stands Mary Tudor, who deservedly earned the soubriquet of Bloody Mary. By one door is a small portrait of Ana Dorotia by Peter Paul Rubens. Ana was the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II and is shown in the garbs of the nun she became. There are numerous Regency rose damask and gilt wood chairs set around the room but for the weary visitor there is thankfully some modern upholstered seating to sink into and admire the gallery from in comfort.

The Yellow Drawing Room retains Robert Adam’s white marble fireplace featuring a central panel of an eagle as well as acorns, leaves and flowers. Unlike the doors, door frame and door furniture, both the ceiling and frieze decorations lack Adam’s lighter touch. The windows overlook the lawn and the mature trees. I caught sight of a weather-beaten wooden see-saw and wondered how many generations of ducal children had used it.

According to the guidebook the Striped Drawing Room, with its red and white striped wall hangings and linked upholstered seating around the inner walls, might have been based on Napoleon’s tent room in Josephine’s Malmaison. For all that they were the greatest of enemies on the battlefield, Wellington comes across as something of a private admirer of Napoleon’s off it.  Dean Wyatt has opened up three separate rooms, one of which had served as a bedroom in Robert Adam’s time. There are no state bedrooms in Apsley House. With St James Palace and Buckingham Palace only a short carriage drive away, there was no need for the Duke to scrabble around for somewhere for royal visitors to sleep of an evening. His own private apartments, not on the tour, are apparently far more modest. I seem to recall hearing that in later years the Duke favoured a simple army camp bed for his sleeping arrangements.

The delightful mirrored octagon Passage seems an odd conceit to have in a small corridor leading to the Duke’s State Dining Room. It is hard to image Wellington’s fellow army officers checking their uniforms and mustachios were just so as they stepped into the dining room to partake of the annual Waterloo Banquet, whilst the Waterloo Gallery was being constructed.

I have to say I rather disliked the State Dining Room finding Dean Wyatt’s design far too heavy and oppressive for my tastes. Thankfully it forms part of Dean Wyatt’s extension to the house and so did not require him to desecrate a Robert Adam room to build it. The forbidding atmosphere was not helped by the lugubrious paintings of various European rulers, such as Tsar Alexander I and Louis XVIII of France, who owed their thrones in part to Wellington’s efforts on the battlefield. The extravagant silver gilt centrepiece on the dining table was presented to the Duke by the Portuguese. Even this was outshone by the Waterloo Shield and Standard Candelabra. Now kept under protective glass in the museum, it took pride of place at the annual Waterloo Banquet in the State Dining Room (until the Gallery was finished). The elaborate sideboard at one end of the dining room was built with a special stand for the shield to be placed in. The shield was presented to the Duke by merchants of the City of London and depicts Wellington surrounded by images of his most famous battles. The only feature in the room I did admire was the curved door by the sideboard leading to the service passage and back to the Piccadilly Drawing Room.

And so ends my visit to Apsley House and with its conclusion the Brimstone Butterfly is obliged to go into hibernation for a while. Whether you have been an occasional visitor or merely flitted in from time to time, thank-you for your company and encouragement and I hope you have derived as much pleasure from the Brimstone Butterfly’s wanderings and musings as I have had in writing them.
Caro Riikonen
8th February 2012