Art restitution and the Duke of Wellington

Posted on: July 24, 2015 by

For those in or around London this summer, it may be worthwhile to stop by Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner to see the former residence of the Duke of Wellington (known as ‘Number 1 London’).

But what many people don’t know is that the Iron Duke was a formidable proponent of art restitution. Following his victory over the French at Waterloo in 1815, Wellington made sure that all the art taken by Napoleon during his conquests was returned to its country of origin. And this was no small task. Thousands of paintings, manuscripts and sculptures had been taken by the French Army from the Vatican, Florence, Venice, the Netherlands, Spain and the various German States beginning in the 1790s. And while the Allied Powers convened in Paris after the war, Wellington supported these countries (or, rather, their monarchs) in getting everything back from the Louvre Museum, which had until then been the Musée Napoléon.

But the Duke’s interest in restitution extended to his personal affairs as well. After his victory over Napoleon’s brother Joseph (who Napoleon had placed on the throne of Spain) at the Battle of Vittoria in 1813, Wellington’s men discovered a carriage full of art that had been abandoned by a fleeing Joseph Bonaparte. Unsure as to the contents, Wellington had the rolled-up paintings sent to his brother in England for further inspection. When it was revealed that these works had belonged to the former King of Spain (i.e. the one before Joseph), Wellington set out to have these works returned. But in the end, the former King, now reinstated on the throne following the ousting of the Bonapartes, was so grateful to the Duke that he offered him the entire collection.

It can now be seen at Apsley House (note the little stars on the labels for works with this particular provenance).

The collection contains works by Velasquez, Van Dyck and Reubens. And only recently it was discovered that one of the works was an important portrait by Titian of his mistress. In fact, the Titian will be on display this summer, accompanied by a comparable work from the Courtauld and another from the current Duke of Wellington’s private collection. If that isn’t enough, there is a larger-than-life sculpture of a naked Napoleon by Canova, which apparently at one time had been used by Apsley House staff as a bicycle stand. So come for the Titians, come in support of art restitution, or come for the naked Napoleon.