It is always a treat to visit Apsley House, known more widely as Number One, London. They have a very fine collection of paintings, porcelain, silver and statuary, including no less than four paintings by Velazquez, two by Ribera, a Titian, a Van Dyck and a Goya, as well as many more. The little drops of condensed water on the The Waterseller of Seville’s stone pitcher are worth the entry fee alone. The painting was in a bundle of 80-odd other canvases liberated from Joseph Napoleon’s carriage after the Battle of Vitoria, which the Frenchman had stolen from Royal Spanish Collection and although the Duke tried to return it to the King of Spain after the end of the Peninsula War, he was so grateful to him for beating the French, he allowed him to keep them. The career and exploits of Arthur Wellesley and his successful campaign against Napoleon Bonaparte, resulting in his defeat at Waterloo and subsequent exile to St Helena, are well-documented, but it is Wellesley’s earlier military history in India from 1796 that this exhibition focuses on. This was the same year that Napoleon, having helped to suppress a royalist insurrection against the revolutionary government in Paris, was made Commander of the French army in Italy. Arthur was already a Colonel in the British army by the time he set sail, and he had prepared himself by travelling with a library of over 200 books, with titles that reflected a wider interest than just India, including Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and Travels in Egypt and Syria by Constantin-François Volney.
After a year in India, his brother Richard, Lord Mornington, was appointed Governor-General, that helped to oil the wheels under young Wellesley’s career, which lurched forward when he defeated Tipu, the Sultan of Mysore, an obstinate opponent of British imperial expansionism, at Seringapatam in 1799. His sword and dagger are on display, along with another sword presented to Arthur in Kolkata, now Calcutta , which can be seen in Robert Home’s portrait, painted just before his departure to England. Before that, he had spent three years in Mysore, reorganising the entire region, and, at the same time, issuing orders that no soldiers under his command would indulge in plunder or exploitation of the indiginous population; something that he implemented in the Peninsula Wars. In 1802, a certain Captain Freese was living in Seringapatam, when Wellesley visited the town. According to the memoirs recorded by a member of the Colonel’s staff of the time, ‘he brought with him a very young and rather pretty woman for his wife. Colonel Wellesley had at that time a very susceptible heart particularly toward, I am sorry to say, married ladies, and his pointed attention to this lady gave offence, not to her husband, but to the Aide de Camp, who considered it highly immoral and indecorous.’ An Irish artist Thomas Hickey, painted a portrait of Mrs Isabella Freese, ‘a dark-eyed beauty with shining eyes, hung in Apsley House, whether to remind Arthur Freese or Arthur Wellesley of a lost gleam may never be known,’ according to Lady Longford in her biography Wellington: the Years of the Sword. The portrait has made its way from Stratfield Saye, the Wellington’s magnificent house in Hampshire, given to him by a grateful nation. This is where the Duke’s favourite charger, a chestnut stallion. Copenhagen, was buried with military honours in a grave in the paddock below a Turkey oak planted as an acorn by the Duke’s housekeeper Mrs Apostles in 1843.
The highlight of the exhibition is the banqueting table in the Waterloo Gallery, laid with the Deccan silver gilt Dinner Service, made in London, and purchased with money raised by his fellow officers who fought alongside him in the Deccan region of India, as a mark of appreciation. Also on display are items of cutlery found in Napoleon’s coach after the Battle of Waterloo, some with his own Imperial crest, and others with the Bourbon family crest. In the Robert Adam stairwell stands an enormous nude marble statue of heroic proportions by the Italian master Canova depicting Le Petit Caporal as the Roman god of war Mars, but this time as The Peacemaker, holding a gilded Nike or Victory standing on an orb. Napoleon did not care for the sculpture, calling it ‘too athletic,’ and it was sold to the British government by Louis XVIII in 1816, a year after Napoleon was exiled to St Helena. On his three month journey to India, Arthur stopped off in Cape town. On his return in 1805, he stopped off at, of all places, St Helena.
Wellington in India
Open Wednesday – Sunday
Until 3 November 2019