The Duke’s Trophy

It is located in the heart of London and like Blenheim Palace, it is a war memorial dedicated to a great win over the French. This time the year was 1815, the battle was at Waterloo and the winner was Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington. Unlike Churchill, Wellesley was already a duke when he beat Napoleon at Waterloo and like John Churchill before him, the duke was bestowed with the resources to build himself a palace after his victory. Parliament gave him £700K for the job (which is about £50 million in today’s money). He was a considerate brother and so, instead of building a house from scratch, he bought the house of his older brother who was on the brink of bankruptcy. He ended up with a house with a legendary address: Number 1, London.

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The house was built originally by Robert Adam at the end of the 18th century for Baron Apsley who was the Prime Minister. Adam was responsible for some of the finest houses in London, including Kenwood House and Osterley Park. After Wellington bought the house, he started a series of improvements. He did not seek to turn it into a family house, instead, he wanted to create a place where he could entertain and celebrate his great win. He also needed a place to display all his new, famous artworks. During the Napoleonic wars, the French took a lot of masterpieces and after Wellington beat Napoleon, the grateful Spanish King gave him many of them. Today Apsley House has one of the greatest art collections in the capital. Amongst the many paintings and sculptures there, you can find the works of Goya, Van Dyck, Velazquez and many others. The art collection is only a small portion of the gifts the Duke was showered with and you can see them all in a fantastic exhibition in the house.

The commission to rebuild Apsley House was given to Benjamin Wyatt, who was the son of Robert Adam’s biggest rival. He worked on the house in two phases and ended up costing Wellington almost three times more than he originally estimated, reaching the sum of £5M in today’s money. The Duke loved his heritage and he made sure that all of the artworks and the artefacts in the house would be protected by trustees so that none of his future heirs would be able to sell or damage his legacy. His heir, the 2nd Duke, decided to open the house to visitors after the death of his father in 1852 and Apsley became a popular tourist attraction immediately.

The family continued to hold Apsley house until 1947 when the 7th Duke gave most of it away to the nation. The family still own an apartment in the northern part of the house.

The house is open to the public and is operated by the English Heritage

For more information: Apsley House official website

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Chasing Castles Review

We visited Apsley House during the summer holidays. The house has probably the best location of all the stately homes in Britain. When a castle or a stately home open their gates for visitors, the result usually ends up on a spectrum between a historic house and a theme park. Some houses just let you come in for a guided tour but change or adjust nothing in them. Other houses like Longleat, Warwick Castle or Beaulieu turn into a kind of theme park. In the case of Apsley, the house acts as a very impressive art museum.

Apsley House was never meant to be a family home, it was used as a show house to display the power of the 1st Duke of Wellington and the collection of trophies he received from the grateful nations of Europe. The result today looks like another art and culture museum in London (but with much more elaborate rooms: it is even more extravagant than the nearby Kensington Palace). The house is managed by the English Heritage and, as always, visitors can enjoy a complimentary audio-visual tour. This is probably one the examples of this that we have encountered to date, along with the one at Waddesdon Manor. One of the interesting features from the audio-visual system is the family option which allows children to learn about the house from their own perspective. Since all kids are screen addicts today, this function works really well. I am not sure what my five-year-old son actually learnt from the tour, but it at least allowed me to explore the house peacefully for an hour or two (well, sort of).

From the outside, Apsley, in my opinion, is not really that impressive (although it looks much prettier illuminated after dark). On the inside, however, it is one of the most lucrative houses we have visited. Not too many rooms are open to the public, but the ones that are are absolutely magnificent. The most impressive room has to be the picture gallery which is breathtaking. The paintings of the old masters that the Duke received from the Spanish king are astonishing, but I think that these would perhaps have been better displayed in a museum or a gallery rather than in a stately home.

To sum things up, if this website was “Chasing Art’’, Apsley House would probably be at the top of the chart. The house is definitely a great tourist attraction and if you visit London and find yourself with a choice between Madame Tussauds, the London Dungeon and Apsley House, I really hope you choose the latter. But for me, as a person who enjoys exploring houses along with their grounds, their history and the characters who lived in them, this house felt flat. The rooms are beautifully decorated and the number of artefacts the house contains is dazzling, but still, it does not deliver the best of experiences like nearby Kensington Palace or Syon House

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