Arthur Wellesley and Benjamin Wyatt

In 1807, Richard, Marquess Wellesley (1760–1842), the Duke of Wellington’s older brother, paid £16,000 to purchase the lease of Apsley House from the 3rd Earl Bathurst.

Wellesley had recently returned from India where he had been dismissed as Governor General, and he and his unhappy French wife, Hyacinthe-Gabrielle, proceeded to spend over £20,000 on new furniture and decorative schemes before moving in with their children in 1808.

The Waterloo Gallery, with gilded overdoors designed by Mrs Arbuthnot

The Waterloo Gallery, with gilded overdoors designed by Mrs Arbuthnot

The Duke of Wellington Acquires the House

It appears from a letter sent by Lord Wellesley to the architect James Wyatt (1746–1813), George III’s Surveyor General and Comptroller of the Works, that Wyatt made some alterations to Apsley House in 1807.

No further documentation relating to these changes has been found, however, and they were probably swept away by successive building work. In any event, the move was not a happy one for the Wellesley family and Richard and his wife separated.

By 1817, Marquess Wellesley was on the brink of bankruptcy, and his younger brother, Arthur, recently ennobled as Duke of Wellington following his military victories in the Peninsular and Napoleonic wars, bought Apsley House from him.

As victor of the Battle of Waterloo (1815), Wellington had been voted a total of £700,000 by Parliament to build a new ‘Waterloo Palace’. Instead of embarking on a new building project, however, he submitted an anonymous bid to buy Apsley House for £40,000 to help resolve his brother’s financial difficulties.

Thus the significant sum available to enable the Duke of Wellington to build accommodation appropriate to his status as ‘the greatest general in Europe’ was used partly to purchase Apsley House as his London home, while the remainder was used to acquire the country estate of Stratfield Saye, near Reading.

The First Phase of Wyatt’s Work

Wellington enlarged Apsley House to secure the fashionable apartments that he required in order to entertain in a manner suitable to his new status.

To design new accommodation, he employed the son of James Wyatt, the architect Benjamin Dean Wyatt (1775–1852), who was already well known to Wellington, having served as his secretary in Ireland from 1807.

Wyatt expanded the house in two phases. The first phase of building work began in 1819–20 and it provided a three-storey extension to the north-east, which included the sombre State Dining Room with new bedrooms and dressing rooms above and below.

The Duke’s friend, Harriet Arbuthnot, recorded in her journal for 24 April 1820: ‘I dined yesterday at the Duke of Wellington’s, the first day of his dining in his new dining room; it is a magnificent room and the greatest improvement to the house’.[1] 

This same State Dining Room provided the venue for the celebration of the commemorative annual Waterloo Banquets which took place on 18 June every year until 1829, when they moved to the Waterloo Gallery.

Phase Two

In 1828, following his appointment as Prime Minister in January of that year, Wellington commissioned additional changes to Apsley House, including the construction of the new staircase and the magnificent Waterloo Gallery on the west front of the house. At the same time, he was negotiating with the Crown Commissioners to purchase the freehold of the site, which was agreed in January 1830, at a cost of £9,532.

Wyatt’s original estimate for the new work at Apsley House was £23,000, but hidden structural defects, requiring the shoring up and underpinning of walls, led to rapidly escalating costs.

The Waterloo Gallery, which from 1830 was used for the annual Waterloo Banquets, was designed in an opulent gilded ‘Louis XIV’ style, with seven mirrored window shutters inspired by the ‘Galerie des Glaces’ at the Palace of Versailles. Wyatt’s work here can be associated with the interiors he designed at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, and for two other London houses, Londonderry House (now demolished) and Lancaster (formerly known as York or Stafford) House.

Wyatt’s final bill exceeded £61,000, which very much upset the Duke. According to Mrs Arbuthnot, writing in her diary on 11 February 1830:

‘The Duke came here last night and annoyed me dreadfully by telling me that he had received the bills of his house and that Mr Wyatt had just exceeded his estimate three times over and had made the sum so enormous that he did not know how to pay it and had seriously been thinking of selling the house. I never saw him so vexed or annoyed … still the house is beautiful and, as it will hold his pictures and all his fine things, he must consider it as his Waterloo House and use part of that money.’[2]

As a result of this experience, Wellington made no further alterations to the house during his lifetime. However, Apsley House now had an impressive 28 metre long gallery in which the Duke could entertain, and where he could display his important collection of paintings, many of which can still be seen there.

Landscaping

Apsley House’s importance was additionally enhanced by the landscaping changes taking place around it. Wyatt had not only encased the house in Bath stone (for which he charged £4,000), but he had also added new stone piers, gates and handsome cast iron railings which helped to unite the house with Decimus Burton’s new tripartite Hyde Park screen and gates, constructed from 1822 to 1825.

This was aligned with the new triumphal Roman arch, the ‘Constitution’ (now Wellington) Arch, on the south side of the road, also designed by Burton and erected between 1828 and 1830. A controversial bronze equestrian statue of the Duke was added to the top of the arch in 1846, but removed in 1883 when Wellington Arch was moved to its present position.

Footnotes

1. F Bamford and the Duke of Wellington (eds), The Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 1820–32, 2 vols (1950), vol 1, p 14.
2. Ibid, vol 2, p 335.

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