Perhaps the most important aspect of the interiors at Apsley House is the magnificent collection of fine and decorative arts on display there, formerly part of the collections of the 1st Duke of Wellington.
In all, there are over 3,000 pictures, sculptures, items of silver, porcelain services, batons, swords and orders, which were given to Wellington by emperors, tsars and kings as an expression of their gratitude to, and appreciation of, Britain’s greatest military hero.
Wellington the hero
Wellington’s success as the vanquisher of Napoleon is apparent throughout the collections at Apsley House, but nowhere more so than in the 3.4-metre tall statue of Napoleon as 'Mars the Peacemaker' (1802–6) that dominates the Stairwell.
Commissioned by Napoleon himself, and sculpted by the Italian neoclassical sculptor, Antonio Canova, it was bought by the British Government for 66,000 francs in 1816 and installed in Apsley House soon after the Duke moved in.
It was originally set within the confines of Robert Adam’s original colonnaded oval staircase, but in 1830 Benjamin Dean Wyatt designed a grander top-lit stairwell to contain it.
Wellington himself acknowledged the importance of his collections when, in 1838, he made provision for his exceptional works of art to be treated as heirlooms. The Duke selected key items, which he assigned by deed to trustees, under legislation that forbade any heir to have ‘any Power whatsoever to alienate, charge, or dispose of the said Services of Plate and China, Jewels, Pictures, statues and other Articles, or any of them, or any Part thereof’ (Act of Parliament 2, V.c.4).
If there was no heir to receive the articles they would be held in trust for his executors. In 1944, some of these heirlooms were gifted to the government and additional items, formerly owned by the 1st Duke of Wellington, were also transferred to the nation for display at Apsley House.
Visitors to Apsley House have the rare opportunity to view a collection of paintings in the house in which they were originally hung. The pictures are of extraordinary quality, including a number of masterpieces by Velázquez, Murillo, Rubens, Van Dyck and Brueghel.
The Duke was the beneficiary of the generosity of the Spanish King, Ferdinand VII in 1816, the so-called ‘Spanish Gift’. In 1813, Wellington defeated Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain, at the battle of Vitoria and captured his baggage train, which he shipped back to England.
The baggage train was found to contain 165 paintings taken by Joseph from the Spanish Royal Collection, which Wellington offered back to Spain. In 1816, after Ferdinand had been restored to the Spanish throne, the Spanish ambassador to England, Count Fernan Nuñez, wrote on his behalf that: "His Majesty, touched by your delicacy, does not wish to deprive you of that which has come into your possession by means as just as they are honourable".
The paintings, many of which had been violently cut out of their frames and even used as protective coverings for donkeys, were restored and rehung at Apsley House. Visitors can see several of them in the Waterloo Gallery, including Velázquez’s 'The Waterseller of Seville' and his 'Portrait of Pope Innocent X' and Correggio’s 'The Agony in the Garden', which Benjamin West, the President of the Royal Academy, thought was 'worth fighting a battle for' and 'should be framed in diamonds'.
Decorative and fine arts
Throughout his military career, the Duke was presented with silver plate and unique porcelain, given by grateful nations in gratitude for his military support. Most of the finest examples have been on display in the ‘Plate and China’ (or Museum) Room at Apsley House since the 2nd Duke opened it to the public in 1853.
Parts of four different ceramic services can be seen in the original rosewood cases designed by the architect, Benjamin Dean Wyatt. The largest of these is the Prussian (also known as KPM – Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin), ‘Wellington’ service, commissioned by Frederick William III of Prussia (1770–1840) in 1817 and completed in 1819.
This vast dinner and dessert service comprises 470 pieces and is dedicated to glorifying Wellington’s life and exploits. Each of the 64 dessert plates, for example, is decorated with a painted central topographical view relating to Wellington’s travels and victories.
In 1818, Frederick Augustus I of Saxony commissioned the splendid dessert service decorated with scenes from the Duke’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars, which was delivered to Apsley House in 1819. It was one of the last commissions of such scale and quality to leave the Meissen factory, with 134 beautifully decorated pieces.
Emperor Francis I of Austria contributed a porcelain dessert service from the Viennese factory of 207 pieces, and the French king, Louis XVIII gave Wellington the magnificent Sèvres ‘Egyptian Service’, which had been commissioned and rejected by Empress Josephine. Also on display in the Plate and China Room are ten of Wellington’s batons of command, including his staff as High constable of England (from 1837 to 1838).
Like the porcelain dinner services, the impressive items of silver were also gifts that the Duke could use at the splendid annual anniversary Waterloo Banquets on 18th June each year. The Waterloo Shield, and its two massive flanking candelabra, were presentation pieces of gilded silver, given to the Duke by the City of London, that would have been set up on the sideboards during the feast.
The Portuguese Silver service, the centrepiece of which is on display in the State Dining Room at Apsley House, was a magnificent silver and silver-gilt service of over 1,000 pieces, commissioned by the Portuguese Council of Regency in 1816 to commemorate Wellington’s victories over Napoleon. Designed by the Portuguese court painter Domingos António de Sequiera (1768–1857), it is the single greatest monument of Portuguese neo-classical silver.