Saturday, September 1
Saint Mary Abbots Church, Kensington
The Royal Albert Hall
The Albert Memorial
The Wellington Arch
Hyde Park Corner
Our second day in London will be spent within walking distance of our hotel.
We will have breakfast at our hotel, and try to start out at 9:00 a.m.
Our first stop will be a nearby church, Saint Mary Abbots Church, Kensington, a beautiful and large Neo-Gothic church designed by George Gilbert Scott. This church is filled with many interesting monuments and murals and paintings and sculptures, and it is a very pleasant and gratifying church to visit. It is situated in the middle of a city block, with peaceful gardens surrounding the church on two sides. My brother and I happened upon this church once by chance, and we both instantly loved it.
After visiting the church, we will stroll the entire length of the street that borders the southern end of Hyde Park, along which are several key London monuments.
Our first stop along the street will be at The Royal Albert Hall, in which we will attend four Proms concerts later in the week. We will walk around this 1871 monstrosity, and examine the architecture, and the friezes, and the exterior terra cotta decorations.
At the rear of The Royal Albert Hall is a beautiful, terraced plaza, surrounded by several beautiful Victorian buildings: The Royal College Of Music, The Royal College Of Art, The Royal College Of Organists (which no longer occupies its original building), The Royal Geographical Society and Imperial College, London. At the top of the plaza, near The Royal Albert Hall, is a memorial to The Great Exhibition Of 1851, with a statue of its organizer, Prince Albert, at the top.
When we are completed exploring the plaza behind The Royal Albert Hall, we will cross the street in front of the Hall and examine another, much more imposing statue of Prince Albert, the statue that is part of The Albert Memorial, a very peculiar but magnificent shrine to The Prince Consort, planned and erected after his early death.
The Albert Memorial is another Neo-Gothic edifice designed by the ubiquitous George Gilbert Scott. Scott’s inspiration for the monument was, oddly, medieval miniature shrines, the shrines that often cradled mummified corpses or body parts.
The Albert Memorial is one of the very greatest sculptural achievements of The Victorian Era. It is also an over-the-top, almost indescribable, eyesore. For sheer scale, opulence and complexity, it is hard to find a match anywhere in the world. Even by the standards of the time, contemporary Victorians thought that The Albert Memorial was a brutal and tasteless conceit on the part of the Queen.
The Memorial is amazingly complicated. There are several levels of the monument, which is 180-feet tall from base to peak. The monument is constructed of granite, marble, cast iron, lead, bronze, glass, mosaics and gold. At its center, a fourteen-foot statue of Albert stands under a canopy, with the statue and canopy encased in a vast Gothic shrine.
Each of its four pillars is made from a single stone, each weighing seventeen tons. The base is decorated with 169 different life-size figures of poets, architects, composers and sculptors. At its four inner corners are marble groups representing agriculture, manufacturing, commerce and engineering. At its four outer corners are tableaux representing the four continents of The British Empire, then at its zenith.
The whole thing is crass. It is also riveting.
When we are done exploring The Albert Memorial, we will proceed to The Wellington Arch, London’s answer to The Arc De Triomphe.
The Arch was originally erected to serve as a grand inner entrance to Buckingham Palace during the reign of George IV, but it was moved to its present location in the very center of Hyde Park Corner, a small park, in 1882. Britain’s largest bronze statue—depicting the angel of peace descending upon the chariot of war--rests atop The Arch.
The interior of The Arch was never opened to the public until 2001, but it now houses three levels of new and interesting displays. The displays—one on each level—address ceremonial arches throughout the world, London’s statues and monuments and memorials, and London’s “Blue Plaques” scheme. We will visit the displays, and we will also go to the viewing platform at the top of The Arch, and enjoy the marvelous views of London.
After we have completed our visit to The Arch, we will stroll through Hyde Park Corner and examine the many statues and monuments that line the park’s edge.
We will try to find a nearby take-out place to buy sandwiches for a light lunch, which we plan to take back with us to Hyde Park Corner, where we will eat on one of the many benches in the park.
After lunch, we will cross the street for the main event of our day: a visit to Apsley House, the former home of the first Duke Of Wellington. Apsley House is one of London’s very, very greatest attractions, and we will spend the remainder of our day there.
There is so much to enjoy at Apsley House that it is almost overwhelming.
First and foremost is the painting collection. While masterpieces adorn the walls of the entire mansion, the very finest paintings are hung in the magnificent Waterloo Gallery, specifically built to display the most renowned works from The Duke Of Wellington’s great collection.
Two hundred of Wellington’s paintings were formerly part of The Spanish Royal Collection. During The Peninsular War, in the midst of The Battle Of Vittoria, British troops came upon a train of wagons carrying paintings northward from Madrid to France. The paintings were masterpieces from The Spanish Royal Collection, stolen by Joseph Bonaparte, who was transporting them to Paris. Wellington requisitioned the paintings and had them shipped to London, into his personal care, and Wellington kept the paintings himself after the conclusion of The Peninsular Campaign (with The Spanish Crown’s belated and grudging consent, given many years after the fact).
Most of the paintings at Apsley House are Spanish and Dutch Old Master paintings, but there are a few Italian and French paintings as well. Some of the works are simply breathtaking, such as Velazquez’s masterpiece, “The Waterseller Of Seville”, Goya’s great equestrian portrait of Wellington (painted during The Peninsular Campaign), and one of the very greatest Correggio paintings in existence.
There are also many legendary British paintings on display, including David Wilkie’s masterpiece, “The Chelsea Pensioners Reading The Waterloo Dispatches”, and Thomas Lawrence’s famed portrait of Wellington, painted immediately after Wellington’s return to London after The Battle Of Waterloo. In the Lawrence portrait, Wellington positively sneers and gloats with self-importance and pride—and yet the Lawrence portrait reveals Wellington’s great charm, too.
The paintings in Apsley House are worth several hours.of examination, but they are not the only reason to visit Apley House.
Wellington used his home to entertain on the grandest possible scale, and he owned one of the world’s very greatest collections of dinner and dessert services, as well as an astonishing number of porcelain and silver commemorative pieces, almost all of which were given to him by grateful European ruling houses, restored to their thrones after The Napoleonic Era had ended.
Wellington, for instance, was the owner of The Egyptian Sevres Service, one of the world’s very greatest dinner and dessert services. The Egyptian Sevres Service was Napoleon’s gift to Josephine to commemorate their divorce (Josephine refused to accept the gift). After The Battle Of Waterloo, The Egyptian Sevres Service was presented to Wellington by a relieved France, happy to be rid of the Bonaparte clan at last.
The Egyptian Sevres Service is of the most amazing beauty and complexity. The centerpiece, alone, makes a visit to Apsley House worthwhile. The centerpiece is over twenty feet long, and it recreates Egypt’s pyramids, sphinxes and other landmarks on the most lavish scale. It is so large and so detailed and so elaborate that, from a practical point of view, it makes a most unsuccessful centerpiece for a dining table—there is no way that diners would be able to eat, or to converse with each other, with such a jaw-dropping work of art immediately before their eyes.
Wellington was also the owner of The Prussian Service, one of the two greatest Meissen porcelain dinner and dessert services ever created (the other is The Furstenberg Service, owned by The British Royal Family). Each item of The Prussian Service is hand-painted with a different scene from one of Wellington’s many military campaigns during The Napoleonic Wars. The Prussian Service is so beautiful, and the painting so fine, that it almost defies belief.
Wellington further owned The Portuguese Service, a vast dinner and dessert service made entirely of silver, and presented to him by the rulers of Portugal. It is the greatest silver dinner and dessert service ever created. Its elaborate centerpiece is almost twenty-five feet long, and almost as impressive as the centerpiece of The Egyptian Sevres Service.
While most of Wellington’s porcelain is on display in the porcelain gallery on the first floor of Apsley House; The Portuguese Service is on display upstairs in the dining room, where it rests on the grand dining table, laid out as if a banquet is scheduled to be held that very evening.
Wellington was a great collector of Napoleonic memorabilia, and much of this collection is on display throughout the mansion. Wellington owned many, many notable items formerly belonging to Napoleon, including Napoleon’s sword and including Antonio Canova’s great colossal nude statue of Napoleon, eleven feet tall, which rests at the base of the grand central staircase at Apsley House. (A bomb exploding nearby during World War II dislodged Napoleon’s fig leaf, causing great consternation at Apsley House, according to the current Duke Of Wellington, a child at the time of the event.)
Apsley House was the grandest private residence in London during its day, and the interiors of its grand State Rooms, alone, warrant a visit. The interiors were restored to their original splendor, consistent with designer Robert Adams’ original plans, in the 1990’s. Ten of the magnificent second-floor State Rooms are open to the public, in addition to the first floor’s museum-like display galleries as well as the galleries in the basement, which are devoted to Wellington’s personal memorabilia.
Apsley House is one of the finest attractions to visit in London, and it is never crowded. My parents and Joshua will love visiting Apsley House, what with its plethora of art and history.
We shall probably remain at Apsley House until it closes for the day, at which point we shall walk back to our hotel. On our way, we shall locate a nice restaurant at which to have an early dinner.
We plan to get back to our hotel no later than 7:30 p.m., so that we all can turn in early for a second consecutive night. By the following morning, we should be entirely free from any vestiges of jet lag.