London Museum Challenge #3-#4: Apsley House and the Banqueting House, Whitehall

February 10, 2013 § 4 Comments

Apsley House

Apsley House

Of all the museums on my list, Apsley House and the Banqueting House perhaps best exemplify the idea of hiding in plain view. I’ve changed buses in front of Apsley House hundreds of times over the last decade, but never entered its gates or door; I’ve walked or ridden past the Banqueting House with rather less frequency, but enough times for it to be rather embarrassing that I’ve never actually paid it a visit.

In my defence, it hasn’t been sheer laziness. Apsley House is known chiefly for its Napoleonic memorabilia, something for which I’ve never been able to raise much enthusiasm, and I always found its exterior rather cold and forbidding in the usual way of Neoclassical buildings. And as the Banqueting House’s claim to fame is the ceiling paintings by Rubens, and I have never been a great fan of Rubens (I admire him as a draughtsman but as for his paintings – all that billowing flesh and melodramatic expression is just a bit much for me), I hadn’t felt a great compulsion to visit it either.

Nevertheless, make them part of a challenge and I’m not going to back down. So last Sunday afternoon found me at Apsley House with rather greater interest in its former occupant than I’d had in my earlier years in London: I recently read some of Charlotte Brontë’s Angrian tales, whose antihero, the Duke of Zamorna, is a twisted, Byronic version of the Duke of Wellington. Okay, I knew he didn’t bear much resemblance to the real Iron Duke, but it piqued my interest all the same.

Although I made a genuine effort to enjoy it, I have to admit that Apsley House and its contents just… really weren’t my cup of tea. The endless parade of military glitter and pomp, be it in the form of suites of Prussian china, over-the-top centrepieces or cases of sabres just left me cold; ditto the Duke’s art collection and the seemingly infinite number of portraits of him looking serious and virtuous.

There was, however, one object in the house that really pulled me up short.


Antonio Canova, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, 1802-6 (Apsley House)

Antonio Canova, Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, 1802-6 (Apsley House)

Set within the sweep of the spiral staircase is a colossal nude statue of Napoleon in the guise of Mars.

The sculpture is the work of Antonio Canova; Napoleon, the story goes, didn’t like it because it was ‘too athletic’ (which strikes me as a little odd – this from a man who is the namesake of a complex about his short stature? Shouldn’t he have been over the moon about being represented as a 3.5-metre tall god with rippling muscles?) and it was consigned to storage in the Louvre until after Waterloo, when the British government bought it from Canova and presented it to Wellington.

It seems to me that it takes quite a singular personality to put a heroic nude statue of one’s mortal enemy not only in one’s own house, but in a place where one is bound to encounter it several times a day. Perhaps the Duke of Wellington was a little bit more eccentric than all those stiff portraits – and the rest of his house – would otherwise suggest.

Banqueting House, Whitehall

Banqueting House, Whitehall

And so, today, to the Banqueting House. Apart from the undercroft (which currently houses a recently rediscovered portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria by Van Dyck) it is, quite literally, a staircase (on which you can see the spot, or nearly the spot, where Charles I lost his head) and the hall itself, with Rubens’s painted ceiling.

Banqueting House (interior)

Apart from the paintings, the most spectacular thing about the hall is its sheer size – a double cube with a ceiling a dizzying 55 feet high. Apart from the ceiling, the decoration is restrained and classical (though it has more life and colour than that of Apsley House).

Banqueting House ceiling

As for the ceiling, well… suddenly Rubens made a lot more sense to me. His flamboyance was perfectly suited to the task of painting these enormous allegorical canvases. The feat is all the more impressive when you take into account that he not only had never seen the building for which his paintings were destined (they were painted in his Antwerp studio, rolled up and crated, and shipped to London), he never saw it after they were installed.

The Banqueting House was quiet and sparsely populated (perhaps a dozen other visitors were there at the same time), its two tiers of windows washing the hall in the even grey light of a rainy winter Sunday. Although the excellent audio commentary went into great detail about the banquets, masques, ceremonies and receptions that had been held there for centuries (indeed, they still are to this day), I found myself struggling to imagine how the room would be transformed by the bustle and glitter of a crowd, of shadow and candlelight (or at least a gentler, more golden light than daylight).

As you might guess from the above, there was an unshakable sense of ticking a box about visiting both places. Of Apsley House I think it’s most appropriate to quote Mark Twain: ‘I am glad I did it, partly because it was well worth it, and chiefly because I shall never have to do it again.’

Of the Banqueting House, however, I can’t help but wish that someday I might be invited to a reception (I can dream!) and see its other face…

Tally: 4 down, 19 to go


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