Apsley House sits at the southeast corner of Hyde Park, the grandeur of its façade looking a bit lost today amid the bustling motorways that surround and race past it. The house is the former residence of the Duke of Wellington, but that alone wasn't enough enticement for me, not being a particular war buff - and not among the many great houses to choose from here. No, what sets this property apart is the art collection. The French looted the paintings from Spain during the Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century. After they were recovered Wellington offered to return the lot, but was told by a grateful King Ferdinand, 'no, you keep it. You've earned it.' (Which I...guess is cool.) Strange provenance aside, I'm entirely grateful for the convenient access to Velasquez's gorgeously rendered Water Seller, several Canova sculptures, a Caravaggio, Titian (or circle)'s Danae, and a number of quality Dutch Golden Age works by Nicholas Maes, Jan Steen, and co. The setting is part of the attraction - it's really neat to see the works surrounded by period decor, despite some difficulties of viewing. The way they're hung (period style) precludes getting close to some works, and there were some frustrating issues with lighting glare which obscured parts of the canvases. But despite the few limitations of the space, the collection was wonderful and informative.
The building had its upsides, too, and one of the cooler moments was seeing the windows of the main dining room closed and converted into mirrors at the end of the day. Their design is a technical, aesthetic, and practical stroke of brilliance, opening up and reflecting the long space. (The practical part comes in with the fact that the windows face full west; most inconvenient for summer evenings.) They were supposedly inspired by the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, proving once again the interconnectedness and love-hate nature of Anglo-French relations. The gigantic Canova sculpture of a nude Napoleon kind of hints at that too.
Though not an overlarge house, the rooms (and their decor) retain a sense of a stately grandeur, and a sense of power and prestige. The shadows of history, and the shadow of Wellington, still seem to pervade the building - just like in the illustration below, where the shadow of Wellington's statue falls over the house from his monumental arch across the way. There's no escaping history sometimes, but there are always ways of rewriting it.