How and why is the change in status of The Duke of Wellington reflected in the Wellington Arch and Apsley House?20 minute read

Once referred to as “the empire on which the sun never sets” (Scott et al., 1827), the British Empire was at one point the largest empire in history. Imperial evidence underwrites the shaping of Britain as the nation it is today (Gilbert & Driver, 2000). As artefacts are ‘vehicles’ that carry meaning (Hall, 1997), this makes examining imperial artefacts an important subject matter for cultural geographers to gain invaluable insight into how Britain’s imperial past has influenced the fabric of its society. Various locations in London reflect distinctive features of the British Empire (Gilbert & Driver, 2000), and Hyde Park Corner in particular is a site that spatializes Britain’s imperial past as it houses imperial artefacts such as the Wellington Arch (Figure 1) and Apsley House (Figure 2). These relics are associated with one of the Empire’s heroes, Arthur Wellesley, more commonly known as the first Duke of Wellington: the former was erected in honour of Wellington’s military achievements while the latter was his not so humble abode.

Figure one Wellington Arch
Figure 1: Wellington Arch
Figure two Apsley House
Figure 2: Apsley House (Wellington Museum)

The aim of this paper is to inspect how and why the changes in the prominence of the Duke can be reflected from Wellington Arch and Apsley House. Both artefacts represent Britain’s changes over time, and I argue that the changes in their physical appearances and surroundings reflect the transformation in the status of this historical imperial figure, denoting his rise and fall. This paper views the Wellington Arch and Apsley House as a single entity, as they are located right next to each other (Figure 3), reinforcing each other’s existence.

Figure three Location of Wellington Arch and Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner
Figure 3: Location of Wellington Arch and Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner

Renowned for his military achievements, the Duke of Wellington was widely regarded as the leading British military and political figure of the 19th century. His victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 destroyed the French Empire, and led to the rise of the British Empire (Sherer, 1833). Yet, he had a somewhat controversial reputation when he was the British prime minister representing the Tories, most notably, when he resolutely opposed the Reform Act that called for the voting right of working men (UK Parliament, 2017). The rise and fall in fortune of the Duke can be reflected in the construction of the Wellington Arch, followed by the removal and replacement of his equestrian statue on the arch. We then see the re-appreciation and glorification of the status of Wellington when Apsley House was turned into Wellington museum.

 


 

The significance of the Wellington Arch and the equestrian statue

The gargantuan Wellington Arch demonstrates military and imperial prowess of the British Empire. The fact that it was named after the Duke demonstrates his exceptional socio-political standing, and the later addition of an equestrian statute based on the duke himself placed on top of the arch shows the elevation of his status to even greater heights.

King George IV employed architect Decimus Burton to design a grand arch so as to commemorate Britain’s triumph in the Napoleonic Wars, leading to the construction of the Wellington Arch in 1827 (English-heritage.org.uk, 2017). Arches, especially neoclassical triumphal ones, are used to display power in many European countries (Fish, 1900). The European states aspire to match the Roman Empire’s past glory and so imitated the Romans’ use of arches to celebrate military success: the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile (Figure 4) in Paris was to built to honour Napoleon’s greatest victories at the Battle of the Three Emperors against the Russians and the Austrians (Huguenaud, 2017); the Arch of the General Staff Building (Figure 5) in St Petersburg on the other hand was created to commemorate the Russia’s victory over the French invasion in the Patriotic War of 1812 (Hermitagemuseum.org, 2017). Once completed, the Wellington Arch acted as a colossal ‘gateway’ to central London. The existence of a grand monument bearing his title at the heart of the capital undoubtedly reinforced the Duke’s already significant standing (resulting from his accumulated military endeavours across India and Europe) among the elite of the empire and indicates his good fortunes at the time.

Figure four Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile
Figure 4: Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile
Figure five Arch of the General Staff Building
Figure 5: Arch of the General Staff Building

An equestrian statue of Wellington (Figure 6) was then sculpted by Matthew Cotes Wyatt and mounted on the top of Wellington Arch (Banerjee, 2012) (Figure 7). This statue depicts the duke holding the first ever field marshal’s baton presented to a British general (Waterloo 200, 2014), emphasising his power and status while exemplifying the role he played in the rise of the British Empire. Furthermore, the bronze that was used to make the statue was primarily from the French cannon at the Battle of Waterloo (Cole, 1980), reiterating his victory at the Battle of Waterloo. Also, the fact that the bronze horse was modelled after Copenhagen, the very mount Wellington rode into the Battle of Waterloo (Sinnema, 2006), shows that considerable effort had been put into ensuring the accuracy of every single detail; this amount of effort is perhaps a good indication of the respect those in power held towards this military hero of the British Empire. The creation of a statue based on a particular individual grants them power, as they are able to inscribe their presence onto the physicality of space; moreover, equestrian statues are used to reflect one’s active military leadership roles (Zanker, 2002). Therefore, the addition of his statue to the impressive Wellington Arch indicates the Duke’s unparalleled standing within the British Empire.

Figure six Equestrian statue of Wellington
Figure 6: Equestrian statue of Wellington
Figure seven Wellington Arch pre-relocation
Figure 7: Wellington Arch pre-relocation

London has always been criticised for being behind other European cities for imperial dominance (Gilbert & Driver, 2000); thus the use of architectural design has been vital to establishing Britain’s imperial supremacy. All in all, the Wellington Arch and the equestrian statue display Britain’s military prowess and imperial power as the fall in the French Empire subsequently is the rise of the British empire, and the Duke of Wellington’s relations to these artefacts shows his utmost importance to his country.

 


The Duke’s unpopularity and the removal of the equestrian statue

The construction of a statue is intended to be a lasting commemoration of a specific person. Conversely, “demolition of monumental statuary bespeaks a desire not only to obliterate the individual commemorated… and rewrite the history of the space” (Cherry, 2006). The removal and replacement of Wellington’s statue reflects the drastic decline in his status, as well as the tensions and power relations within British Empire under his rule.

The Duke became Prime Minister twice since 1828 but suffered from limited popularity (Gov.uk, 2017), owing to his opposition towards political reform such as the Reform Bill that proposed voting rights for underrepresented urban areas (UK Parliament, 2017). British society suffered from social distress and misery under his pro-control government (Harrison, 1973), which resulted in much resentment towards the Duke, and many people chose to direct their dissatisfaction towards the equestrian statue perched above the Wellington Arch. The statue was called ‘the greatest sculptural fiasco of the 19th century’ (Physick, 1970), since it was largely out of proportion to the arch and disrupted the skyline. Many people including Queen Victoria regarded the statue as an eyesore, and it was often criticised in the satirical magazine Punch (Figures 8 and 9): “as the arch at Hyde-Park-Corner is a very respectable structure, it is too bad to allow the DUKE of WELLINGTON to ride rough-shod over it” (Punch Vol XI, 1846). However, when the government declared that the statue had to be dismantled, the duke threatened to resign from all his public posts as the removal of his statue would be blatant evidence of royal disfavour (English-heritage.org.uk, 2017). As seen from the general public’s disgust of his statue and unrelenting attacks on the structure by various magazines, the mobs and masses were antagonistic towards the Duke, yet they were powerless to override his decisions— the failure to remove the much hated statue during the Duke’s lifetime indicates the inability of the British public to effectively oppose this past Prime Minister.

Figures eight Cartoon that critiqued the statue in Punch magazine
Figures 8: Cartoon that critiqued the statue in Punch magazine
Figures nine Cartoon that critiqued the statue in Punch magazine
Figures 9: Cartoon that critiqued the statue in Punch magazine

It was not until quite some years after Wellington’s death that the despised statue was removed. During a road-widening scheme in 1883 that involved moving the Wellington Arch (English-heritage.org.uk, 2017), the government took the opportunity to dismantle the enormous statue and relocate it to the military town of Aldershot in Hampshire (Banerjee, 2012). In 1912, Adrian Jones’ sculpture titled The Angel of Peace Descending on the Chariot of War (Figures 10 and 11) replaced the original statue on the arch. This newer sculpture depicts an angel of peace descending on a chariot with four horses driven by a young boy (Brindle, 2001). The four-horse chariot, known as a quadriga, has been used since ancient Rome to signify power, and served as an emblem of victory (Brindle, 2001). Such variations of a quadriga sculpture are also mounted on Berlin’s Brandenberg Gate (Figure 12) (Maranzani, 2013) and Paris’s Arc du Triomphe (Figure 13) (Arcdetriompheparis.com, 2017). The British version of the quadriga shows that Britain still desired the existence of a figure signifying the country’s victory and triumph, but the decision to displace the equestrian statue for good makes it evident that the mobs and masses no longer wanted anything to do with their oppressive Prime Minister.

Figure ten Wellington Arch today
Figure 10: Wellington Arch today
Figure eleven the Quadriga on the arch
Figure 11: the Quadriga on the arch
Figure twelve Quadriga on Brandenberg Gate
Figure 12: Quadriga on Brandenburg Gate
Figure thirteen Quadriga on Arc du Triomphe
Figure 13: Quadriga on Arc du Triomphe

Furthermore, Hyde Park Corner became a location of disputes and protests. Wellington’s derogatory nickname as the ‘Iron Duke’ was the result of iron bulletproof shutters being installed at Apsley House in response to demonstrators targeting his residence twice in 1831 (Historyhome.co.uk, 2016). Ironically, Apsley house was named ‘Number One London’ as it conveys the idea of the beginning of London, yet Londoners were the ones destroying this artefact because of their revulsion towards the Prime Minister. It is crucial to not just listen but to analyse how voices of the suppressed are interwoven with and affect the ‘dominant’ and ‘authoritative’ historical narratives (Dillon, 2005); in this case, we can see that there is a radical shift in public perceptions of the Duke of Wellington. When he was fighting abroad and challenging his foreign rivals, he was perceived as the valiant hero of Britain, but after returning to Britain he had turned into the villain and was portrayed as an evil politician who suppressed the masses.

 


How and why Wellington remains a presence

Although Wellington was a notably unpopular politician during the less celebrated days of his later life, there is no denying of the great military contributions he made and the critical role he played in Britain’s ascension as an imperial power. As time passed by, the Duke’s hateful contemporaries passed on, and their resentment towards the oppressive politician died with them. The descendants of the mobs and masses of Wellington’s time seem willing to identify him as a national hero rather than a domestic villain, and to remember his military achievements while overlooking his political failures.

Once again, there had been a shift in perceptions of the Duke of Wellington, though this time he is perceived in a positive light. The transformation of Apsley House into the Wellington Museum is, in a sense, a re-appreciation and re-glorification of the Duke of Wellington’s status. Additionally, English Heritage took on the custodial responsibility of long-term works of Wellington Arch in 1999 and of Apsley House in 2004 (English-heritage.org.uk, 2017), preserving evidence from the imperial past to the present. The fact that the name of the Wellington Arch still remains unchanged, as well as the new emphasis placed on protecting and promoting artefacts and sites related to the Duke of Wellington, exhibit a desire to embrace the finer aspects of Wellington’s eventful life.

The Wellington Museum at Number One London houses 3,000 imperial war collection items that pictures the duke in a godly manner. For example, the Waterloo Shield (Figure 14), made in 1822 that was displayed at the Duke of Wellington’s yearly Waterloo Banquets, has a carving of the duke being crowned by the figure of Victory (English-heritage.org.uk, 2017), which reinforces his military prowess and high-ranking position at the time. Another significant piece in the museum is a sculpture titled ‘Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker’ (Figure 15). As the name suggests, it was originally a statue made for Napoleon, but after Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo, the British Government bought this piece and presented it to Wellington as a reward for his services (English-heritage.org.uk, 2017). This item reiterates the duke’s victorious win against Napoleon, the man who came close to conquering much, if not all, of Europe, and the statue of Napoleon located within the realms of the Duke of Wellington can also be seen as a symbol of British imperial dominance in Europe. Additionally, the Waterloo Gallery, constructed in 1828 under the orders of the (then Prime Minister) Duke of Wellington to commemorate his victory in the Napoleonic Wars (Gilmour, 2015), still displays a combination of gifts bestowed upon the Duke and works documenting his military achievements back then.

Figure fourteen Waterloo Shield
Figure 14: Waterloo Shield
Figure fifteen Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker
Figure 15: Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker

The way the duke is regarded in the present shows the country’s changing views on Britain’s imperial past. In 2015, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Waterloo, Apsley House hosted lectures relating to Wellington and Waterloo, and the National Portrait Gallery also had an exhibition dubbed “Wellington: Triumphs, Politics and Passion” (Campbell, 2015). The active preservation of the Duke’s mementos and the aforementioned events to celebrate his triumphs are a clear indication of Wellington had recovered spectacularly from his fall from grace many decades after his death. This revival of the Duke’s reputation suggests that hatred towards him was only a short-lived reaction, and that the nature of his military achievements have had a much longer lasting – even permanent – impact. Perhaps positive remembrance of this key individual who once stood at the forefront of the British Empire is a sign that, despite the controversial nature of British imperialism, it still elicits pride in the British of today.

On the other hand, however, it may be worth considering the misrepresentation of the fortunes of the Duke of Wellington by these imperial artefacts. Hyde Park Corner is a ‘fluid’ place (Cherry, 2006) as boundaries of the area has been shifted and redrawn due to road widening schemes, the area and its monuments have gone through a series of removals and refurbishments. Hence, it is important to take into consideration the fact that Hyde Park Corner has been ‘recoded’ when trying to understand the fortunes of the Duke of Wellington through examining the remnants of Britain’s imperial past located there. For instance, the renewal and restoration of Apsley House means that this artefact is no longer a reminder of the past oppressions of society under the ruling of the duke. Additionally, Hyde Park Corner is no longer a space of disputes and disenchantment; the relics of opposition at Apsley House have disappeared, therefore concealing the periods of violence and strife the site had experienced from its visitors. ‘Number One London’ has been renewed and transformed into Wellington Museum; though it does contain possessions owned by the duke and accurately reflects his important status and military achievements, it only sheds light on the Duke’s successes as a general and portrays little of his political inadequacies – or rather, political oppression. “Monuments are deceptive” as they “may not be what they seem” (Cherry, 2006), so whether imperial artefacts are capable of accurately and truly reflecting Britain’s imperial past – a past of glorious military and economic expansion combined with oppression and suffering of the powerless – is a question that provides food for thought.

 


Conclusion

The Duke of Wellington’s contemporaries once lauded him as a national hero whose military achievements were crucial to the eminence of the British Empire. Being the general who decisively defeated Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo at the climax of the Napoleonic Wars, he was perhaps one of the most popular figures in British history. Yet, his iron-fisted, anti-reform rule as the Prime Minister of Britain led to great public dissent towards him, to the extent that iron shutters had to be put up around his residence to protect it from raging mobs. Today, his harsh governance is largely understated while his military achievements are re-glorified. The substantial changes in public perceptions of the Duke of Wellington throughout history are reflected in the construction of the Wellington Arch and Apsley House, the removal of the equestrian statue on the arch as well as the addition of the quadriga afterwards, and the transformation of the Apsley House into the Wellington Museum respectively.

 

As shown by the examples of the Wellington Arch and Apsley House, imperial artefacts can serve as a useful tool of analysis when attempting to understand the extent to which Britain’s imperial past has shaped the various aspects of today’s social structure. However, given the complexity of these mementos of the British Empire, it would be prudent to bear in mind that, certain elements of London, and to a wider extent Britain, under imperialist rule may be underrepresented by the existing imperial artefacts. Without fully examining the changes of these relics over time, it is easy to misunderstand the precise nature of Britain’s imperialist past.

Yan Chow


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Pictures Index

Figure 1: English-heritage.org.uk. (2017). History of Wellington Arch | English Heritage. [online] Available at: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/wellington-arch/history/#footnote-6 [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

Figure 2: English-heritage.org.uk. (2017). Apsley House | English Heritage. [online] Available at: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/apsley-house/ [Accessed 2 Dec. 2017].

Figure 3: Google Maps (2017). Hyde Park Corner. [online] Google.com. Available at: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=129A6NlGlVMfI9e4QAGbgtfR3NuE&hl=en&ll=51.502505000000006%2C-0.1511480000000347&z=17 [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

Figure 4: Huguenaud, Karine (2017). Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile – Paris – napoleon.org. [online] napoleon.org. Available at: https://www.napoleon.org/en/magazine/places/arc-de-triomphe-de-letoile-paris-2/ [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

Figure 5: Hermitagemuseum.org. (2017). The General Staff Building. [online] Available at: https://www.hermitagemuseum.org/wps/portal/hermitage/explore/buildings/locations/building/B60/ [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

Figure 6: Banerjee, J. (2012). Wellington Monument, Aldershot, by Matthew Cotes Wyatt (1777-1862). [online] Available at: http://citorianweb.org/sculpture/wyatt/2.html [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

Figure 7: English-heritage.org.uk. (2017). Significance of Wellington Arch | English Heritage. [online] Available at: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/wellington-arch/history/significance/ [Accessed 2 Dec. 2017].

Figure 8: English-heritage.org.uk. (2017). Significance of Wellington Arch | English Heritage. [online] Available at: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/wellington-arch/history/significance/ [Accessed 2 Dec. 2017].

Figure 9: Banerjee, J. (2012). Wellington Monument, Aldershot, by Matthew Cotes Wyatt (1777-1862). [online] Available at: http://citorianweb.org/sculpture/wyatt/2.html [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

Figure 10: English-heritage.org.uk. (2017). History of Wellington Arch | English Heritage. [online] Available at: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/wellington-arch/history/#footnote-6 [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

Figure 11: English-heritage.org.uk. (2017). History of Wellington Arch | English Heritage. [online] Available at: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/wellington-arch/history/#footnote-6 [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

Figure 12: Maranzani, B. (2013). Brandenburg Gate: A Brief History. [online] HISTORY.com. Available at: http://www.history.com/news/brandenburg-gate-a-brief-history [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

Figure 13: Arcdetriompheparis.com. (2017). Arc de Triomphe Paris – Paris Attractions – Arc De Triomphe. [online] Available at: http://www.arcdetriompheparis.com/ [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

Figure 14: English-heritage.org.uk. (2017). Apsley House Collection | English Heritage. [online] Available at: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/apsley-house/history/collection [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

Figure 15: English-heritage.org.uk. (2017). Apsley House Collection | English Heritage. [online] Available at: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/apsley-house/history/collection [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

 

 

 

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