The history of Apsley House goes back some four decades prior, to its purchase by the 1st Duke of Wellington on 1817. The house was completed in 1778 for Lord Apsley (later the 2nd Earl Bathurst), both designed and furnished by one of the late 18th century’s leading architects Robert Adam for a total sum of £10,000.

The London Home of the Duke of Wellington

By Chris Small

The history of Apsley House goes back some four decades prior, to its purchase by the 1st Duke of Wellington on 1817. The house was completed in 1778 for Lord Apsley (later the 2nd Earl Bathurst), both designed and furnished by one of the late 18th century’s leading architects Robert Adam for a total sum of £10,000.

The Adam house still survives in part but it is encased in later work carried out for the 1st Duke of Wellington and so very little of it is actually visible on the outside. Many of Lord Apsley’s contemporaries were scathing about the choice of location for the house, with one young socialite having remarked, ‘Who will come especially so far out of their way as Apsley House is from everything?’

In the late 18th century Hyde Park Corner was the very edge of town and adjacent to the house were the toll gates through which anyone entering London from the west would pass. The house’s nickname of “No. 1 London” was coined at this time as once through the tollgates, Apsley House was the first house a traveller would pass.

In 1807 the house was sold to Richard, Marquess Wellesley, a former governor-general of India and the elder brother of Arthur Wellesley who was yet to be raised to a peerage. Having purchased the property for £16,000 he arrived in an almost empty house as the majority of the Adam designed furnishings had been removed by Lord Apsley. Although Wellesley never extended the house he did redecorate and buy sumptuous new furnishings, the cost of which totalled around £20,000.

Finding himself in straightened financial circumstances after a decade of lavish living at Apsley House, Marquess Wellesley was only too glad to accept when he received an anonymous offer of £40,000 to purchase the property. The bidder turned out to be Wellesley’s younger brother, no longer merely Arthur Wellesley, but now 1st Duke of Wellington and a national hero for his leadership of the allied forces at Waterloo.

Apsley House was not Wellington’s first townhouse in London, he and Kitty by now the 1st Duchess had lived in both Harley Street and Hamilton Place prior to 1817. Purchasing Apsley House allowed Wellington to own a house befitting his new found status. All around Apsley House were the great town houses of some of Britain’s most well established aristocratic families and if he was to equal them, he needed a grand London home.

Wellington already had the country seat at Stratfield Saye, which had been gifted to him from a grateful nation earlier in 1817, along with that came a fortune of some £600,000 with which the Duke was to build himself a new palace. This offer was not without precedence as the same thing had been done a century before for the 1st Duke of Marlborough with the nation’s gift of Blenheim Palace.

Plans for ‘Waterloo Palace’ were drawn up and this huge new country house was to be the grand ducal seat for Wellington. Reflecting on the proposals the Duke decided not to go ahead with the palace after all, due to the huge construction and maintenance costs, which he judged would not be able to be met from the revenue derived from the estate in future generations. Instead, some of that fortune intended for the new house was diverted to extending Apsley House.

The Duke called in his former private secretary, turned architect Benjamin Dean Wyatt to complete the first phase of the remodelling 1819. The first extension took the form of a three-storey addition discretely placed on the east faced but far back enough so as not to compete with the Adam frontage. Contained within this new block were an underground stable at basement level, on the ground floor the Duke’s own bedroom suite and immediately above on the first floor was the new great dining room.

This grand new room allowed the 1st Duke to begin entertaining on a more lavish scale; the dining room became the setting of the annual Waterloo Banquet which the Duke hosted and to which were invited the senior officers who had fought alongside him in that campaign. On these occasions the table would have been laid with the silver-gilt Portuguese centre piece and the main course eaten from silver plate (the whole service of a 1000 pieces gifted by Portugal) with dessert being served on the porcelain Dresden service gifted from King Frederick Augustus I of Saxony.

One of the earliest dinner guests to be welcomed to the new dining room was King George IV. Turtle and venison appeared on the menu in what the Morning Post described as, “one of the most judiciously arranged dinners ever seen.”

All through the 1820’s the newspapers are littered with stories about the glittering parties and dinners held by the 1st Duke and Duchess at Apsley House, this was a necessity for a man with political ambitions in the 19th century. In 1828 upon becoming prime minister, the Duke used the opportunity of having 10 Downing Street at his disposal to move away temporarily and have Wyatt back to further enhance Apsley House. These alterations were to really put it on the map of great London houses in the same class as the famous ducal homes such as Devonshire, Bridgewater and Stafford (now Lancaster House) Houses.

The culmination of Wyatt’s transformation of Apsley House is the Waterloo Gallery, completed in 1830. The creation of this huge room at 90 feet in length was spurred on by the fact that the Duke needed an appropriate setting to house the 165 paintings from the Spanish royal collection. Wellington had taken these pictures from the baggage train of the defeated Joseph Bonaparte in the aftermath of the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. The Duke later offered them back to the restored Spanish monarch King Ferdinand VII, but was told that he might keep them as a gift from Spain for liberating his country from French occupation.

As soon as the Waterloo Gallery was completed, it was quickly filled with these outstanding works of art including paintings by Velázquez, Rubens, van Dyck and Murillo amongst many others. Wellington appreciated fine art and he knew all of these paintings, his own personal favourite was Coreggio’s Agony in the Garden. Diplomatic gifts were given to Wellington by the Russian Tsar Nicholas I, when Wellington visited St Petersburg in 1826 to attend the funeral of Tsar Alexander. The two great torchers made of polished Siberian porphyry and decorated with ormolu metalwork had originally been intended for the Winter Palace in St Petersburg and the malachite topped tables in the Striped Drawing room are examples of the finest Russian workshops.

The Duke would enjoy showing off his new gallery to invited guests, although many criticized the colour scheme of amber toned damask which people felt did not show the gilt framed pictures off to best effect. In his lifetime the 1st Duke would not listen to any suggestions of changing the colour but soon after his death, the 2nd Duke re-decorated the room in red silk damask.

Not only was this a new Louis XIV style chamber an art gallery, but by night it could be transformed into either a banqueting hall or a ballroom. The famous Waterloo Banquets were held in this room from 1830 until the Duke’s death over two decades later. When it came to the Duke’s turn at throwing open his doors for parties during the social season, he would issue as many as 1500 invitations. Often guests would be arriving from around 10pm to 1am so these were all night affairs, the state dining room would be off limits on these occasions only the Duke and his most important guests (frequently Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) were admitted and a buffet would be available to them. Not all of Wellington’s time at Apsley House was spent in grand entertaining, but it was always a place where it was very hard for him to forget his celebrity status and properly relax. The mob was always crowding around the gates to catch a glimpse of the hero of Waterloo coming and going from his home. The mob could also turn violent and when the Duke opposed the Reform Bill, these recently loyal followers identified Apsley House as the focal point of pro-reform riots. On two occasions in 1831 the house was attacked with bricks and stones being thrown at the windows. In response Wellington had all of the windows encased with iron shutters as a protective measure. It is from this action that he acquired the sobriquet “The Iron Duke”.

Kitty, the 1st Duchess did not get to enjoy the completed Apsley House for very long as she died there in April 1831, the Duke stayed by her bedside until the end despite having been distant with her for most of their marriage.

Wellington was not alone though and even when entertaining, he had his closest friends staying with him, in particular Charles and Harriet Arbuthnot. Harriet died only a few years after the Duchess but she made a big impact on Apsley House and reputedly she designed some of the features in the Waterloo Gallery. Mr Arbuthnot, like the Duke had a long widowhood and he stayed on with Wellington in the capacity of best friend/secretary and advisor until his own death in 1850 at Apsley House.

Since the 1st Duke of Wellington’s own death in 1852 at Walmer Castle, each of the succeeding dukes made Apsley House their base in London, given over to the nation in 1947 by the 7th Duke the house is still the home of the present Duke of Wellington and his family.

The house is managed by English Heritage and is open to the public, so please see the website for details.

By Chris Small