This year In celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, there are several displays exhibitions and events planned around the capital, non more impressive then the National Portrait Galleries mini blockbuster of the Iron Duke himself Arthur Wellesley, The Duke of Wellington. Sadly it was announced that Brigadier Arthur Valerian Wellesley, the direct ancestor of the hero of Waterloo, died at the age of 99 just months before this anniversary year. The 8th Duke of Wellington contributed works to the NPG exhibition, including Francisco Goya’s masterful, if unusual portrait of Wellesley showing the strain of war on the young soldier’s face. The painting itself has a colourful history having once been stolen from the National Gallery in 1965 by a 61 year old retired truck driver, who it is said removed it by way of a toilet window in protest of the government charging old and poor people for television licences. I don’t think the Iron Duke would have approved of that one.
Wellington was of course a conservative with a capital C who could never be described as deep and complex or even a likeable man and once the visitor moves on from grandioso paintings of the Peninsular War and the Battle of Waterloo with their strange mix of the romanticism and the horror of war which is fully expected in the jingoistic climate the follows a victory. But this is also a time representative of the high point in Wellesley’s life. For as the exhibition moves on and concentrates on his private life, it seems to casts a not so flattering light on the fading hero. The comparison between Wellington and Churchill is tempting, both being heroic leaders during respected wars, but never successful in peacetime. Churchill of course lost the famous election of 1945 along side two other heroes of WW2 General de Gaulle and General MacArthur. Although Wellington was twice British prime minster for the Tory party in 1828-30 and for a month in 1834, but during this time he experienced a turbulent period of personal and political unpopularity, his residence at Apsley House was targeted by a mob of demonstrators on the 27 April 1831 and again on the 12 October, smashing the windows from crowds angry over rejection of the Reform Bill which he strongly opposed.
It was during this time his personal life was becoming public for all the wrong reasons, he treated his wife Kitty rather coldly from the beginning of their marriage because it was rumoured he had that found out she had been engaged to another suitor prior to Wellington’s return. But this may only be one of a number of reasons,Wellington was never a romantic, it was said that he usually only gave his officers just two days home leave to visit their sweethearts stating “Why would any man want to spend more then two days in bed with the same women”. The exhibition ends with a gallery of ladies, both of friends and lovers that would indicate he practiced what he preached.
But for all the negatives surrounding Arthur Wellesley lets not forget he was perhaps one of the greatest military strategist in history, in the words of the 8th Duke of Wellington ” I am often asked whether we should not now, in these days of European unity, forget Waterloo and the battles of the past. My reply is, history cannot be forgotten and we need to be reminded of the bravery of the thousands of men from many nations who fought and died in a few hours on June 18, 1815 and why their gallantry and sacrifice ensured peace in Europe for the next 50 years”.
Showing from March 7-June 7 Details 020 7306 0055
Words David Coomber