If you are looking for a fabulous day out in London, filled with history, culture and a touch of glamour I highly recommend visiting Apsley House, the London home of the first Duke of Wellington, or ‘The Great Duke’ as he is more commonly known by his family and those who work in his houses today.
Afternoons in spring and summer, in my experience, are great times to visit Apsley House. The ochre coloured, neoclassic, mansion stands semi-marooned by a bewildering maze of roads at the intersection of Piccadilly, Park Lane, Belgravia and Knightsbridge, in South West London. This means that a day of sightseeing, luxury, shopping or all of the above can be blended with a large dose of art and history.
It’s location also makes the house easily accessible by public transport, with the closest underground station burrowing up from the pavement just off Hyde Park Corner, a stones-throw from the entrance. For those with cars, it will be necessary to hunt for public bays on Park Lane, in Knightsbridge or Belgravia, or perhaps behind Piccadilly. It is less than 15 minutes to walk from the plentiful public parking meters around Harvey Nichols, Sloan Street and Brompton Road, and only a little longer from the Harrods area where there are greater chances of finding a space. The closest would probably be from one of the meters in Belgravia but English Heritage, who run the house, advises that the much sought after Park Lane meters are closest. Wherever you park, just be sure and allow enough time to do what you want to do and get back to your meter, be warned that if you want to take your time it is more than possible to lavish over 2 hours at Apsley House. Apart from private wheeled transport, according to the website the house is half a mile from Victoria Station and there are plentiful bus stops around the site.
The simplest way for people to get to Apsley from Knightsbridge (the way I came in 2019) is to find Hyde Park and follow South Carriage Walk east until you reach the old toll gates at Hyde Park Corner. If you approach from Kensington on foot you must cut through the park bearing left until you find Park Lane which you must then follow south, or until you reach South Carriage Drive.
The townhouse should be in full view as soon as you reach the southern edge of the park, where on fine summer days, Londoners crave the verdant protection of green spaces to shield them from traffic fumes, and seek out the open places for fleeting gusts of cooler air. On days like these it is full of people relaxing on breaks, taking family outings or just lazing in the sunshine.
A number of concessions sell light lunches and cafe fare out of carts dotted close at hand around the edge of the park. The closest to Apsley is right on the corner in view of the Achilles statue.
Commemorative statues should play a diverting part in any trip to the House and they will compose the greater part of what you can photograph on your trip. This heroically nude statue is a piece of Wellingtonia in itself. It was unveiled, completely naked, in 1822, the sculpted 33 tons of melted bronze gun barrels, captured from the French and paid for by the ‘ladies of England’ to honour the martial achievements of Arthur, Duke of Wellington, was given the fig leaf treatment soon after it was revealed.
There was never an official memorial raised, (or completed) to the battle of Waterloo, (or what preceded it,) the event that epitomised the Duke’s career and Britain’s struggle against Napoleon, and in the years after he died many of his veterans became rudderless. Increasingly forgotten, the old and bowed ranks of survivors would often reassemble at this statue on Waterloo Day, 18 June, when in the past a grand banquet had been held in the opulent Waterloo Chamber of Apsley House by the Duke for remaining officers. In the park officers and ‘other ranks’ would pay court to an aged woman dressed in fine clothes, with a beguiling sparkle to her eyes. Lady Georgianna De Ross, being herself a living piece of Waterloo history, having in her youth been one of the daughters of the Duchess of Richmond who had been with the Duke at her mother’s famous ball on 15 June.
Further into the park there are some sit-down eateries along the serpentine river. Fashionable ‘Instagram cafes’ can be found around Belgrave Square, often filled with affluent visitors from the Middle East and with the aid of modern personal communications, chain cafes and restaurants are not hard to find along Knightsbridge and Piccadilly. Wether or not a visitor plans ahead or plays it by ear it will not be hard to find refreshment in this area of London.
When entering the house don’t hesitate at the imposing door, seize the handle and go inside. The building’s opening hours vary by season and costs £10.50 per adult to visit (£6.30 for children) but (as of 2019) in the spring and summer they are only closed on Monday and Tuesday, and there is a joint ticket option to see the house and the exhibit housed in Wellington Arch.
The House and its current contents were passed to English Heritage in 1943, though the Museum Room on the ground floor had been opened to the public by the 2nd Duke in 1853, and it did not officially open to the general public until 1952. It was built between 1771-1778 by Baron Apsley and boasts the grand address of Number 1 London.
Back in those days it was the first house you came to after passing the toll gates at Hyde Park Corner, when all on the west and north side of the turnpike was much greener and dominated by parkland. Apsley House formed the end of a long, intruding arm of mansions that stretched down from Piccadilly and crossed the modern road that now connects to Park Lane. It was bought by the Great Duke’s rather injudicious brother, Richard, Earl of Wellesley, in 1807 and renovated at such great expense that the Duke purchased in ten years later to alleviate his financial woes. He then further improved it, though never to the extent he originally intended, roughly, to its present state.
As soon as the heavy door closes behind you, the outside world is shut out. Traffic noise reduces and things become still and hushed. The interior of the entrance hall is dim and echoing, shoes are voluble on the patterned, monochrome floor and the patented aroma of ‘stately home’ replaces the tang of emissions and adds to the reverential atmosphere.
Vast paintings cover the walls, and continue to do so throughout the house, and the life of the Great Duke is the dominant theme. The old museum room, is on this floor, a secluded chamber that, half in shadow, glitters with glass, steel, gilt and porcelain, containing dinner services and tokens of appreciation from foreign sovereigns. This room can either begin or end a visit, and I might advise leaving it until last when one can better appreciate the enormity of Wellington’s prominence on the world stage. Exhibitions are held in a small basement room that must once have formed part of the servant’s quarters and usually examines a facet of the Duke’s life. It will often include items from the Wellington collection at Stratfield Saye, his country home. When I was there (2019) this showcased Wellington’s time in India.
Above the attraction of getting a sense of the Duke of Wellington’s public stature and remarkable personality, Apsley House is famous for a semi-static collection of over 200 pieces of artwork.
Although a prominent landmark, Apsley House asks an entrance fee and therefore does not attract the massive crowds and visitors which attend the public galleries of the national museums. A visitor should not expect to wait long to get in, especially if you can manage a trip on a weekday. A walk, or tour around the house is not arduous either, the rooms are warm and luxurious, so fresh looking in some cases that you might think the Great Duke only died yesterday, but should you feel fatigued benches and seats are available in most of the rooms for guests to sit and admire their surroundings, apart from that there are no amenities that would induce a person to stay more than their interest allows.
As an old house of a relatively robust and healthy family, Apsley is not overly geared to the disabled. A grand staircase spirals up to the 1st floor around the famed, monumental, nude statue of Napoleon Bonaparte by Canova, while another, more workaday stair, leads down to the exhibition room. There is one lift, accessed by a few steps and it is advised to call ahead if you require assistance and parking; bringing a companion is advised. The site does all it can to make visits for mobility impaired guests possible but there is only so much that can be done in a house like this.
The contents of the house can be roughly separated into three. The art. The collection and whatever is in the exhibition room. Be sure and check the website for news regarding events during your stay in London. All the items on display are excellently preserved and presented. Although not ostentatiously promoted as an art gallery, the collection of old masters forms a wondrous tableau of European painting and could be enjoyed for more hours than a typical visit might endure. It is in short, an art lover’s paradise. As opposed to the controversial collections in other museums this one is remarkably free of guilt as well. It was gathered by the Great Duke, and in large part came from a vast cache of looted treasure rescued from the French at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813 and then gifted to Wellington by the grateful King of Spain. Velasquez’ water seller of Seville is a standout, particularly special, almost tactile, baroque must-see.
As an admirer of Wellington, I gained a greater understanding of the man himself by visiting the wondrous rooms at Apsley House. I count it as the only stately home I’ve ever visited that felt like (in a totally unrealistic fantasy) I could live in. Indeed, the layout of the 1st floor is such that you can easily imagine a ball taking place as you look around. Linger with the portraits of Wellington’s generals in the striped drawing room, my personal favourite space, and this sense becomes almost tangible.
Grand in every respect, decorated largely in the imperial style, with a warm colour palate of creamy whites, rich reds and glowing gold, it is the house of a public figure and a great man, but at the same time, for those who know, you can appreciate a more natural simplicity, rather at one with the straightforward grandness, at work behind the pomp.
Once you have traversed the salons and galleries you must return downstairs, and here, if you haven’t already seen it, don’t forget the museum room. The staff on hand are friendly and welcoming, those who stand watch in the rooms are knowledgeable and will let you make your own way around without interfering unless approached. They are sufficiently schooled to educate an art or Wellington novice and able to converse intelligently with those better-informed guests as well.
Once you have left the house, cross the busy road and get a full view of the front facade of the house and see the Great Duke’s commanding statue which stares critically at his London home. On this man-made Island you also find Wellington arch, which holds a small selection of artefacts, including some rather famous boots.
A colossal 30-foot-high statue of the Duke in his campaign clothes astride his charger Copenhagen, made of yet more surplus captured French guns, once surmounted the arch and now resides on a shallow eminence in Hampshire. The statue, nicknamed ‘The Arch-Duke’ was widely reviled as an eyesore, and the arch itself, used to stand in a very close situation to the modern, more reserved monument. The great duke’s massive funeral carriage drove through it on the day of the epoch ending mortuary procession. In 1883 the arch was moved stone by stone to its present position and the Arch-Duke was replaced with the chariot we see today.
With that in mind there is no better place to end your visit to Apsley House and Wellington Arch, than the Wellington statue, where you can for a brief moment ponder all you have seen and learned before returning, perhaps with some regret, to the modern world.
‘Apsley House Opening times:
1st April to 22nd December 11am to 5pm (last entry 4.30pm)
1st January to 31st March Saturday & Sunday 10am to 4pm (last entry 3.30pm)
Waterloo Weekend: 13th & 14th June, complete with reenactors of Wellington's army a surgeon and regency lady.
Salamanca Weekend: 18th and 19th July complete with reenactors of Wellington's army a surgeon, regency lady, Georgian cook and Guardsman.
"Apsley House Mystery" evenings: 4 nights, in May, August, September and October (Murder Mystery).
Open every day of the year from 10am (last entry changes please check before travel).
1st floor exhibition on the design of the Arch, the Quadriga statue and the history of the Arch, 2ns floor on the Royal Artillery Memorial and the Royal Artillery's sacrifice in WW1
The 3rd & 4th floor exhibition will be changed in March. It will be a brilliant new partnership with the Vigo Gallery in London displaying an emerging artist's work, inspired by the Quadriga statue, title TBC.’
With thanks to Marcus Cribb at English Heritage for his help and assistance.
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Joshua Provan is an author and content creator from the UK who has enjoyed a lifelong fascination with history. He currently administrates adventuresinhistoryland.com and is currently finishing his second book. For more information please follow the link to his website.