First call in town

25th September 1998 at 01:00
Frances Farrer calls at Number 1, London, home of the Duke of Wellington.

The house that belonged to Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington and victor of the Battle of Waterloo, is nicknamed "Number 1, London". It is equal to its name. It was designed in the 1770s by neo-classical architect Robert Adam, and Wellington commissioned major additions by Benjamin Dean Wyatt. The interior was decorated in the latest fashion and has a central, circular staircase which twines above a Canova statue of Napoleon, vast and naked but for his marble fig leaf.

The statue was the Regent George IV's gift to Wellington, who, when he returned to England from his triumphant soldiering and a brief ambassadorship in France, could have built a palace for himself.

Instead, in 1817 he bought Apsley from his brother and rebuilt it at enormous expense and to an extraordinary level of brilliance.

Apsley House was built between 1771 and 1778 as part of a terrace fronting on to Piccadilly and backing on to Hyde Park. The terrace survived until the 1960s when the adjoining houses were demolished, and Apsley alone now stands magnificent at Hyde Park Corner, next to the Marble Arch which was placed there in 1833 to commemorate the victories of Trafalgar and Waterloo.

The house has a masculine air, with big, heavy furniture and huge, highly-polished, dark wood display cases. Everything is powerful and cumbersome, the wars constantly recalled by flags and insignia.

For schools, the most obvious aspects of interest are connected with military and political history, though the curators point out how much of the social and domestic life of the times can be learned from the kitchens and from upstairsdownstairs comparisons. Life in a town house would be such a topic: 1,000 candles lit for a grand dinner - who was invited and how were they fed?

The paintings alone offer a rich source of study. There are works by Velazquez, Murillo, Goya, Rubens, Correggio, Brueghel, Steen, de Hooch, Wilkie and Lawrence. There are some 2,500 items in Apsley's collection, which also includes, for instance, cases displaying some of the Ambassador Service of silver-gilt plate (650 pieces), the majority of a set of 48 S vres porcelain dessert plates and a great deal of Meissen. Some of the grandest artefacts are in the dining room, laid as for a banquet.

Here is more silverware than you could dream of - great, martial, decorative pieces with pillars, flags and figures in precious metal. The grandest is the centrepiece for the Portuguese service, a colossal artefact of silver parcel (partial) gilt depicting mythical figures and Egyptian animals.

There are constant reminders of Waterloo. The great Louis XlV-style Waterloo gallery was made by Wyatt as a copy of the Galerie des Glaces at Versailles, and has sliding mirror panels concealing windows with views of Hyde Park. Paintings depicting the battles and army life, such as camp beds, are evidence of the more austere existence of the Iron Duke (though not half as austere as for the ordinary soldiers).

Wellington was sent into the army by his mother, who thought him ugly and rather hopeless and decided that since he was only the younger son and no great intellectual, the military would probably be a good enough career for him.

The Duke is most popularly remembered for his association with the indispensable boot, and for being good to his soldiers. His most famous utterance: "Publish and be damned!" was made when he was asked for money by Harriet Wilson to be kept out of her memoirs with his reputation intact.

Apsley House was given to the nation in 1947 by the 7th Duke, is administered by the Victoria and Albert Museum and is the last great London town house still lived in by its owners, still the Wellington family.

Apsley House, 149 Piccadilly, London W1V 9FA. School parties free, maximum number 25, book five weeks ahead. Enquiries: Katharine Hugh, education officer, 0171 499 5676

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