London: Apsley House

And here’s another brief detour back to London, before I carry on with Belgium…

I’ve said before how I have a bit of a historical crush on the Duke of Wellington; I’m sure the man was an ass in real life, but he looks kinda hot in portraits (and having a real schnoz myself means I tend to like big noses on others; they add character – see my infatuation with Steve Perry circa 1979, in all his slightly androgynous shiny-haired glory).  And, having seen Walmer Castle and the chair Wellington died in, it was time at last to visit his London home, Apsley House (or 1 Hyde Park, as it used to be called, though it is now sadly officially at 149 Piccadilly, Hyde Park Corner).  Time at last because Apsley House seems to close each winter for lengthy renovations, and it only just reopened on the 18 of April, which happened to be the day of my visit (yeah, sorry, it’s taken me a while to get this posted).

Perhaps because it was the first opening day of the season, the house was quite crowded, mostly with elderly English Heritage members with snazzy gold cards, which I think denotes lifetime membership (my card is only sad and grey), and we had to wait a little while for our audio guides, as they ran out of headphones.  These new “multimedia” audio guides are free, but admission to the house will set you back £9.20 if you’re not a member.  I don’t need to relay my hatred for audio guides again here, but I will say that these ones were probably worth waiting for, because there really wasn’t much information provided in the house: a binder per room (that in fairness, did cover a lot of the material in the guide, and there were enough copies set out for everyone to use), mostly providing an overview of the furnishings rather than background on Wellington himself.  And they were indeed multimedia guides, as they were touch screen things with video, and even a sort of “game” or two included (in quotation marks because it wasn’t that fun).  The guide basically gave you the option of three differently themed tours: highlights, art, and one other, might have been history(?).  Being impatient, I just went with the highlights, which meant you only had to listen to about a minute and a half of explanation per room, with three or four bonus segments included if you wanted to hear more, which surprisingly, I often did.  Another thing I liked was that all the rooms were numbered in the guide, with a picture of each so you knew where you were meant to be, AND a map was included, so for once, I managed to progress through the rooms in exactly the order intended.  Finally, there was a bonus section included just on Wellington himself, offering about a four minute biography, so I guess it’s fair to say that for once I was fairly impressed with the audio guide.

I was upset that no pictures were allowed, particularly when I got to the centrepiece of the house: an enormous nude statue of Napoleon that dominated the stairwell of the gorgeous spiral staircase.  You may be wondering why Wellington would own such a thing, but the truth is that he looked upon it as one of his many spoils of war (there are many, many more portraits of Napoleon scattered throughout the house), and he admired the sculptor who made it.  And it doesn’t look very much like Napoleon, particularly the physique (and the splendid buttocks, though his frontal bits are modestly covered with a fig leaf).

Wellington also had a museum room, housing his many pieces of silver and gold plate, and his splendid porcelain collection.  In pride of place was another “spoil;” the Egyptian themed dessert set originally made for Josephine, Napoleon’s ex-wife, which was nothing short of fabulous, although the campaign flags hidden up by the ceiling were probably of greater historical importance (they counted down to Napoleon’s eventual defeat).

Wellington purchased the house after he was already a national hero, so he had to immediately renovate it in order to entertain in appropriately grand style, including a couple of huge dining rooms with massive chandeliers hanging from the ceilings.  He had quite an impressive art collection; in addition to the many, many portraits of Napoleon, and a fair few of himself (mostly looking pretty foxy), he had some of other historical figures, like the Prince Regent, Admiral Nelson, and Alexander I of Russia, and also a surprising number of Velasquez’s paintings.  I think the sheer number of paintings to look at really helped with my enjoyment of the audio guide, as there was enough to keep me entertained in each room whilst I waited for the video to finish.

The house was impressive and all, but as usual, my favourite objects were on a more human scale.  A case in the final room contained some objects relating to an aged Wellington: a set of his false teeth, a preserved hoof from a beloved horse, and a combination cane/hearing aid that he took with him to Parliament in his later years, as all those bombs during Waterloo had permanently damaged his hearing.  My other favourite part of the house wasn’t even part of the official tour, and had no signs pointing towards it; we only stumbled upon it whilst looking for the toilets.  Downstairs from the gift shop, there was a basement room containing an array of caricatures of Wellington; these were delightful.  Also delightful was the powerful flush on the Victorian-looking pull chain toilets.

Again, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get pictures of that statue for you, and I don’t think the experience was worth 9 quid, but if you’re an English Heritage member, I’d add it to your list, as the audio guide was one of the best I’ve come across, and that nude Napoleon is worth seeing in person (can you tell I’m still slightly dazzled by it?).  I’m always glad to gaze at portraits of Wellington (however far removed they may have been from the reality), and learn a bit more about his life (apparently he was kind of the black sheep of the family until he joined the military, as his brothers were more successful and thought to be more handsome (must go investigate that now…)), so I enjoyed myself, even if I wouldn’t have been thrilled if I’d had to pay that admission price.  3/5.

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