In a time when politicians were almost exclusively drawn from the landed gentry, it helped prospective Prime Minister’s to have a grand London home to entertain and work from, and one such building can be found at number 149 Picadilly.
In fact, it is better known as Apsley House, and irreverently as Number One London, by virtue of being the first building a person would pass when entering London proper.
Situated next to Hyde Park corner, the house frontage is now somewhat cut off by the road traffic roaring past the front door – but it is open to the public as a major museum and art gallery.
Although named after Lord Apsley, for whom it was built in the 1770s, its most famous occupant was the 1st Duke of Wellington, and in fact is still occupied by the current Duke, on a part-time basis.
Although Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington is famous for his victory over Napoleon, much of his later life was spent in politics and was twice the Prime Minister, although he was forced to resign after his continued opposition to political reform.
The house/museum is therefore not unsurprisingly devoted to the first Duke, and quite a lot of space is given over the Napoleon as well. Entry via the main doors, which were closed when I visited due to the weather, with a hotel room style sign hanging on the door handle advising how to turn the handle to open the door.
The main foyer is now given over to the ticket sales and a fairly modest gift shop. Take the audio guide if you prefer, but sadly put away your camera. Photography is strictly banned.
A room that is easy to overlook is also probably the most impressive in terms of contents, if not for the room itself, shrouded in gloom as it is. This is the silverware room, with a stunning Egyptian style centrepiece and walls lined with all the finery that fine dining at the time commanded.
The rest of the house is a generic Grand House with Grand Staircase and Grand Paintings in Grand Rooms. If you like art, then this is a good place to visit, and even the least cultured of people will recognise some of the works, as they are famous.
The collection of 200 paintings includes 83 which were acquired by the Duke after the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. The paintings were in Joseph Bonaparte’s baggage train, having been plundered from the Spanish royal collection. They were later formally presented to Wellington by King Ferdinand VII of Spain.
Curiously, one of the largest items in the entire collection is a monumental sculpture in the staircase – of a naked Napoleon in the guise of the Roman God of Mars. It was purchased in 1816 by the British government as a gift for the Duke.
For me though, the most interesting room is in the basement, under the toilets, as it is here that the Duke’s political career is shown off in the conventional manner of the time – in satirical cartoons. As a fan of political cartoons, I personally found the display captivating.
You can also see the Duke’s death mask, and an impressive collection of medals and tributes to his favourite horse.
The House was gifted to the nation in 1947, and is now managed by English Heritage. The second floor is still private, and won’t be handed over unless a future Duke dies without an heir.
Until then, the public can see the rest of the building and entry is £6.50 or free to members of English Heritage. It’s open at weekends during the winter months.