The core of the Wellington Collection was formed by the ‘Spanish gift’, those paintings rescued from the battlefield at Vitoria, Spain, in June 1813 at the end of the Peninsular Wars.
The retreating Joseph Bonaparte had taken over 200 paintings from the Spanish Royal Palaces but was unable to escape with them all. Wellington’s men saved most of the paintings, amongst them works by Velázquez, Titian, Rubens and Brueghel. They were being transported in big trunks called ‘imperials’. All the works were off their stretchers and rolled up.
Wellington was aware of the quality of the paintings in Spain but he had no real idea of what treasures he had rescued until they were sent back to his brother William, Lord Maryborough, in London.
When most of the paintings had been identified and Wellington was informed that they had come from Spain he wrote to the restored King Ferdinand VII and offered them back. Wellington was told that the King was “touched by your delicacy”. He did not want to deprive Wellington of ‘”that which has come into your possession by means as just as they are honourable”.
Today 82 paintings from the Spanish Royal Collection are on display to the public in Apsley House.
When Wellington purchased Apsley House he started to collect paintings that appealed to him. At two sales in Paris, his agent purchased 12 important Dutch pictures including three by Jan Steen and two by Nicolaes Maes.
Wellington also commissioned portraits of his contemporaries, notably three full-lengths by Sir Thomas Lawrence of the 1st Marquess of Anglesey, Lord Lynedoch and Viscount Beresford which joined other military portraits by the Dutch artist Pieneman.
The most expensive painting that Wellington ever bought is by Sir David Wilkie, ‘The Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Despatch’. It cost £1,260, an enormous sum at the time. It might be explained by the fact that Wilkie started drawing his first studies in 1817 but the final payment for the painting did not come until 1822.
The Wellington Collections is not just about paintings. The Museum Room on the ground floor houses some of the magnificent gifts that were given to Wellington after Waterloo by the grateful monarchs of Europe.
Dinner services by Sèvres, Meissen and the Berlin Factory dominate the room along with a rich collection of silver and silver. The rosewood cases around the room date from Wellington’s day and they contain many of his numerous dinner services.
The 2nd Duke opened parts of the house, including the Museum room, after his father’s death in 1852. A special ticket was required for admission. The first guidebook to Apsley House stated:
“No more graceful compliment has of late years been paid to public opinion than that rendered by his Grace, the present Duke of Wellington, in submitting to general inspection the Mansion which has so long been identified with his illustrious father’s name”.