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Newsletter, January 2004 (Issue 154)

Kensington Palace / Apsley House


it was my first visit to two architectural gems so there were swathes of culture and loads of history to absorb. I was on a steep learning curve but it turned out to be a fascinating experience with the added pleasure of seeing Hyde Park in wonderful October sunshine. Thank you, Julie and Margaret, for arranging a great day out.

Kensington Palace

We were decanted from our coach into Kensington Gardens, once the private parkland of William III and Mary 11 and now merged into Hyde Park. We approached the palace from the south so our first view of the building was its most handsome faqade behind the flamboyant statue of William. The royal couple chose to move to this modestly proportioned Jacobean brick mansion in 1689 from Whitehall. Their change of address was largely due to health reasons because William's asthma and bronchitis were aggravated by Whitehall's damp and smog.

Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to transform the existing house and later monarchs employed Hawksmoor and Kent to carry out further alterations. Grinling Gibbons decorated the interior with carved panels, graceful fluted Corinthian pillars, friezes and statues. William Kent seems to have produced some of the most interesting features for George I - in particular the trompe l'oeil crowds of figures (including a self-portrait) overlooking the King's Stairway. In the dramatic Cupola Room his trompe l'oeil fresco gives the effect of a dome although it is only 3.5 inches in depth. The King's Gallery, designed by Hawksmoor, has an opulent ceiling painted by Kent and its walls are covered in fabulous works of art. This room has recently been restored to its original perfection and it was here that I found one of the most interesting objects, a working wind vane, the wind direction indicated by a moving pointer on a painted map. It is attributed to Thomas Tompion (1694), one of the most famous clock makers. (There is a similar one in Woolverstone Hall.)

Moving forward to the 19th century, Victoria was born in a ground floor room once known as the North Drawing Room on 24 May 1819. Her bedroom on the first floor shows a complete change of style from the rest of the palace with pretty floral wallpaper and much lighter furnishings. I could picture her playing here as a girl with her beloved little dog, Dash. It was in this bedroom that she was woken at 5 am on 20 June 1837 to be told that her uncle William IV had died and she was now Queen. A white marble statue of Victoria as a young girl stands on the Broad Walk to the east of the palace. It was made by her daughter, Louise, a gifted sculptress, in 1893. More recently Kensington Palace became the London home of Charles and Diana, and Princess Margaret had an apartment here.

Our tour of the palace included a viewing of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection from the 19th century to the present day and a display of the Queen's hats and handbags. Some of the colourful. hats rotated on slender stands. It looked like a rather attractive piece of installation art and would not have seemed out of place in Tate Modem. The sunken garden created in 1909 is an attempt to copy the formal gardens laid out by William and Mary. Dwarf cypresses and terraced flower beds surround a rectangular pond to form a sheltered tranquil place. Just the spot for a picnic.

Apsley House, No I London, Hyde Park Corner (Wellington Museum)

Until the beginning of the 19th century London ended at Hyde Park Comer and the countryside began. So Apsley House was known as No I London because of its location just past the toll gate into London from the west. Many of the distances to England's towns were measured from Hyde Park Comer.

The house was designed by Robert Adam during the 1770s for Lord Apsley. Fifty years later it became the suitably grand home of the first Duke of Wellington. He took up residence in 1817 just two years after defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. Wellington used the architect Wyatt to enlarge and alter the house. The Dining Room was created in 1819 and the Waterloo Gallery some ten years later. Then in 1828 (the year in which he became Prime Minister) the final touch was added - a classical portico and the whole exterior clad in Bath Stone. Apsley House was given to the nation in 1947 and it has become the Wellington Museum. With its collection largely intact and family still in residence, it is the last grand aristocratic town house in London.

The museum is rich in sumptuous 19th century furniture, memorabilia, trophies, tableware and art. Many paintings depict Wellington's contemporaries, victories and family. Perhaps the most stunning painting is Velasquez's "The Water Seller of Seville", painted in 1919 when the artist was only twenty years old, and Correggio's "The Agony in the Garden", apparently stolen from Joseph Bonaparte's luggage at Vittoria. Then there is the huge Goya portrait of Wellington on horseback: allegedly the original was of Napoleon but the head was re-painted. Finally in the basement I found the famous caricature "A Wellington Boot or the Head of the Army", one of many drawn by William Heath in 1829.

My favourite part of the building is the staircase - light, delicate, curving upward in a great spiral and picked out in white and gold. At the foot of the staircase is a startling double life-size Canova statue of Napoleon wearing only a fig leaf. To continue the fig leaf theme: overlooking the back of Apsley House in Hyde Park is the Achilles statue, a 33 ton bronze copy of a Roman original. It was erected in 1822 on behalf of the women of Great Britain to commemorate the Duke's achievements. This nude statue caused outrage and William Wilberforce, no less, led a campaign to have it removed for decency's sake. A fig leaf was eventually positioned in the appropriate place and the statue remained.

As we left for our journey home we passed yet another heroic image - an equestrian statue of Wellington by Sir Edgar Boehm on the central traffic island.

DIANA LEWIS

    Front cover of issue 154 Cover, issue 154

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