Get the tube to Hyde Park Corner and then take the short walk to the capital’s most famous address: No1 London. Well, that’s what it says in all the tourist guide books, although nobody mentions where No 2 was or why anybody would think it was a good idea to deliberately not bother telling the postie what street it was on. And even having been there I’m still not entirely sure if that ever really was the official address of the place, or if it’s just a sort of honorific indicator that the occupant was once the most famous and celebrated man in Europe and so everybody knew where he lived anyway. I suppose he’s still pretty famous now but just in case you don’t know where and who I’m talking about then it’s Apsley House home to good old Arthur Wellesley. Who? Ok, he’s probably better known by his title as the Duke of Wellington, the man who led the troops into the Battle of Waterloo and so put an end to naughty Napoleon’s plan to create the first ever European single market. And just in case you’re thinking of using a satnav, or some such modern technical device to follow in my footsteps, then it might be useful to know that the address has been redesignated to the somewhat less impressive sounding 149 Piccadilly, W1J 7NT. At least, that’s what it says on the little advertising leaflet that English Heritage puts out and which I picked up the other day, thus prompting my current perambulation.
Aside from the fact that Wellington (with a little help from our East European allies) defeated Napoleon in 1815; went on to become Prime minister; had a pair of boots named after him and had a prominent proboscis, I’m not sure that I know very much more about the man. And, to be perfectly honest, I’m reasonably content with that situation and not really all that interested in expanding my knowledge of his biography, but I do have a sort of general curiosity about the tourist sites of London and how these places go about displaying their wares. And the aforementioned leaflet also said something about an art collection, dropping in a few big names like Velasquez, Rubens and Goya which, consequently, made me feel just a little bit like one of those fish who gets sight of what looks like a pretty tasty fly supper and just can’t resist talking a great big bite. Ok, so it’s probably not quite an exact analogy, since my visit didn’t result in having a hook jammed though my lips or getting put in a basket, weighed and thrown back in the water but I have to admit I couldn’t resist the temptation to investigate further and take a closer look.
So, what’s the fly actually like? Well, I think if you’re more interested in history and politics than art and design then it probably makes sense to go with the official audio tour which, I imagine, guides the visitor round the House, zoning in on specific individual exhibits to illustrate the story of the Duke’s very full life. But I’ve never really liked walking around with a pair of headphones clamped to my ears and having some creepy voice purring away telling me what to look at and when – so I decide to wonder around undirected, nosing about here and there, letting my eyes lead the way. Consequently, I’m not sure if it’s the official route but, having got my ticket (in fact, free entrance with my Art Fund card, £11.60 full price), I head downstairs past a collection of engravings that shows various battles and troop movement although the lighting is a bit dim and the subject matter more illustrative than artistic so I don’t linger too long. The small basement room contains more prints but this time they’re those colourful caricatures that poked fun at the powerful and were apparently very popular during most of the 19th century. It’s not at all clear what particular polemical point was being made by the cartoonists here but Wellington is variously portrayed as a lobster, a donkey and a jester which is perhaps not all that complimentary although balance comes with the other main display in this room, a glass case full of medals and sashes. Evidently, following Arthur’s big battle, he became something of an international celebrity such that the various crowned heads of Europe, major and minor, went out of their way to shower him with titular honours. So, amongst the baubles on display are the Order of the Crown of Wurttenburg, the Badge and Star of the Grand Cross of the Order of Fidelity of Baden, keys to the cities of Pamplona and Cuidad Rodrigo and a bunch of other bizarre trinkets, all with their own silly costume jewellery sprays of sparkly glass, shiny enamel and fading ribbons. Returning to ground level there’s a very silly Michael Craig Martin portrait of the Duke, a sort of line drawing overlain with a continually changing sequence of bright, garish colours. Doubtless, the electronics required to provide the effect are quite clever but Craig Martin seems to be churning these things out – I’m sure I saw a similar one recently featuring the recently deceased architect Zaha Hadid – and this highly stylised manner of representation reveals nothing at all about the personality or history of its subject and perhaps a little too much about the slide into commercialism of the artist. It’s the solitary contemporary artwork here in the House and looks so very out of place that I think it would probably be better if the rather daft gimmick was de-hanged and dumped down in the storeroom.
A far greater piece of artistic absurdity awaits the visitor at the bottom of the main staircase, only this time it’s much too big and heavy ever to be moved from its current position. This massive, slightly discoloured piece of marble was carved by the great Canova, evidently trying to emulate his Renaissance forebears by posing his subject in classical garb. Apparently the muscular figure draping a toga over his shoulder is Napoleon in the role of Mars, although instead of looking belicose and heroic the figure looks all a bit camp, an effect heightened, or maybe diminished, by the rather small fig leaf that has been carefully attached in order to protect the dignity of the once mighty Emperor. Passing by this piece of nonsense leads upstairs to a suite of rooms that are furnished, or rather overfurnished, with the kind of excessive ornamental opulence that becomes almost suffocating. Floors are laid with rich, red patterned carpets while wall are covered in yellow or red satin wallpaper or else a mosaic of paintings and mirrors; and just about every other surface has been given a gilt sheen of one sort or another. The dining room has a table that seats about forty and is adorned with a sort of vast sprawling decorative silver candle holder in the form of a chorus line of tiny dancing maidens. Lining the walls are individual portraits of the Kings of France, Holland and Prussia along with the Tsar of Russia and the Emperor of Austria. All are bedecked with unearned medals, plumed hats, ermine cloaks and other ridiculous sartorial extravagances, except for our own King George IV who has settled for wearing a rather more modest highland kilt.
Everything is clearly designed to impress and dazzle and yet, to a modern audience, I suspect it all looks totally ludicrous and impractical. The unrelenting glitz and gilding is also very tiring on the eyes so that by the time I get to the rooms with the art collection I’m feeling optically exhausted and find it hard to concentrate. It’s really quite a struggle trying to focus on any of the individual paintings when they’re all hung together so closely in a vast mosaic, each with their own gilt frame and set against a glowing red silk backdrop. It doesn’t help that the Duke seems to have been so eclectic in his choice of artists and works, that come together in a random collection of religious scenes, portraits, genre scenes and the like. There are indeed a small selection of Velasqueths here along with an unremarkable Rubens, a couple of interesting Jan Steen comic scenes and a dark Murillo, although I didn’t quite manage to track down the promised Breughel. But such is the nature of the display that, sadly, none are shown to particularly good advantage. In other rooms the works are better placed with the best work being a typically luscious Titian showing Danae seduced by an ever-inventive Zeus who this time has taken the form of a shower of coins although, despite my standing in a variety of positions, I still couldn’t shift the light glare that, rather ironically, bleaches out the golden cascade. Two other portraits deserve special mention: there’s a very strange Goya which shows the Duke on horseback, except that the animal in question is quite stunningly badly painted and looks about as realistic a pantomime horse. And then, to end on a more respectful note, there is the famous portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence that shows the Duke in his red uniform with bits of gold braid looking straight back at the viewer with exactly the air of confidence and glamourous good looks that one would expect from the dashing hero that once saved a continent.