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.
The Wellesleys at Apsley
In 1807 Richard, Marquess Wellesley (1760–1842), paid £16,000 to buy the lease of Apsley House from the 3rd Earl Bathurst. Wellesley and his French wife, Hyacinthe-Gabrielle, proceeded to spend over £20,000 on new furniture and decorative schemes. A letter from Wellesley to the architect James Wyatt (1746–1813) suggests that Wyatt made some alterations to Apsley House in 1807, although the nature of this work is not known (see Research on Apsley House).
The Wellesleys moved in with their children in 1808, but by 1817 the couple had separated, and Marquess Wellesley was on the brink of bankruptcy.
His younger brother, Arthur (1769–1852), had recently been ennobled as Duke of Wellington following his military victories in the Peninsular and Napoleonic wars. As the victor of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he had been voted £700,000 by Parliament to build a new ‘Waterloo Palace’. Instead of embarking on a new building, however, he submitted an anonymous bid to buy Apsley House for £40,000 to help resolve his brother’s financial difficulties.
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.
Wellington’s Art Collection
No further alterations were made to the house during Wellington’s lifetime. However, Apsley now had an impressive gallery 28 metres long in which the duke could entertain, and where he could display his important and ever-growing collection of paintings. Most of these had been presented to him by European rulers, grateful for Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and the liberation of the continent.
In 1838 Wellington made provision for his exceptional works of art to be treated as heirlooms. He assigned key items 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’.
Wellington died in 1852. The following year his son Arthur, the 2nd Duke, decided to open Apsley House to the public. A ‘Museum Room’ was created where Wellington’s magnificent silver trophies, military memorabilia and gifts of porcelain were exhibited. These can still be seen today. Entry was by ticket only and the visit proved extremely popular.
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.
1. The National Archives (TNA), CRES 2/632 (Hyde Park leases, 1767–97).
2. E Harris, ‘Adam at No. 1 London’, Country Life, vol 195 (1 November 2001), 98–101
3. TNA, CRES 2/635 (sale of Apsley House to the Duke of Wellington, 1829–40).
4. F Bamfort and the Duke of Wellington (eds), The Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot 1820–32, 2 vols (London, 1950), vol 2, 335.
5. Act of Parliament, 1838, 2 Vict c 4.
6. TNA, ED 136/565 (Duke of Wellington’s offer to the government of part of Apsley House and the Wellington heirlooms).
7. TNA, WORK 17/464 (Apsley House, Wellington Museum Act, 1947).