History of Apsley House
Standing in the heart of London, Apsley House is the former home of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo. Designed and built by Robert Adam in the 1770s, the house was bought by the duke in 1817. He transformed it into a palatial residence to befit his status, and filled it with works of art and gifts from grateful rulers across Europe. The public rooms now form a dazzling backdrop to Wellington’s outstanding collection.
‘Number 1, London’
Apsley House was originally designed and built between 1771 and 1778 for Lord Chancellor Henry, 1st Baron Apsley (later 2nd Earl Bathurst), by the fashionable architect Robert Adam (1728–92).
The site chosen was on Piccadilly, at the formal entrance to Hyde Park, which was Crown land. Bathurst negotiated the lease of land from the Crown in order to build his new house. Apsley was the first house on the north side of Piccadilly, located opposite a turnpike with toll houses, and consequently it became known as ‘Number 1, London’. Its correct postal address is now 149 Piccadilly.
The original house was a five-bay red brick building, with a spacious entrance hall and central colonnaded oval staircase. Adam had to design the house to respect the existing stable block on the eastern side, which contributed to its irregular floor plan.
Adam completed the building and furnishing of the house at a cost of £10,000. The structure of this house survives underneath the later stone encasement and extensions.
Apsley House Expands
Wellington enlarged Apsley House to secure the fashionable apartments that he needed to entertain in a manner befitting his new status. To design new accommodation, he employed James Wyatt’s son, Benjamin Dean Wyatt (1775–1852), who had served as his secretary in Ireland from 1807.
Wyatt expanded the house in two phases. The first began in 1819–20 and provided a three-storey extension to the north-east. This included the State Dining Room, with new bedrooms and dressing rooms above and below.
In January 1828 Wellington became Prime Minister, and later that year he commissioned more changes to Apsley House. These included the construction of the new staircase and the magnificent Waterloo Gallery on the west front of the house. The gallery was used to celebrate the commemorative Waterloo Banquets which took place annually on 18 June (and were previously held in the State Dining Room).
At the same time, Wellington was negotiating with the Crown Commissioners to buy the freehold of the site, which was agreed in January 1830 for a cost of £9,532. Later that year, the duke was forced to install iron shutters and railings around the house to protect it after its windows were smashed during riots. This may have been the origin of his famous nickname, the ‘Iron Duke’.
Wyatt’s final bill for work on Apsley House exceeded £64,000, an extortionate amount which, according to the duke’s close friend Mrs Arbuthnot, immensely angered Wellington:
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.
The 20th Century
The family suffered losses in the Second World War: the 5th Duke died in 1941 and two years later his son and heir, Henry, died from battle wounds. Gerald, the 7th Duke, decided to offer Apsley House to the nation, together with a significant portion of the 1st Duke’s art collection.
The Wellington Museum Act was signed in 1947. Part of the house was converted for its new public use as a museum, while part remained a family residence. The Ministry of Works removed the gas lighting inside the house, installed electric lighting and refurbished the interior. Apsley House opened to the public in 1952, the centenary of the death of the 1st Duke of Wellington, under the direction of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Between 1961 and 1962, as part of the Hyde Park Improvement Scheme, Park Lane was diverted to Hyde Park Corner, prompting the demolition of the houses immediately east of Apsley House. This cut the house off from the rest of Piccadilly. Apsley’s forecourt coach house was also demolished, the new east façade was clad in Bath stone, and a public underpass was built.
By 1982 the Victoria and Albert Museum had largely completed its redisplay of the interiors of the house to reflect their occupation under the 1st Duke of Wellington, and further restoration was finalised in 1995. In 2004 responsibility for maintaining Apsley House was transferred to English Heritage, which continues to display and research the collections in the spirit of the preceding generations of occupants.
About the Author
Dr Susan Jenkins was formerly a senior curator at English Heritage. She has written a number of articles about the history of Apsley House and its collections for leading art and history journals.