Wellington - Women and Friendship review: Worth a visit to Apsley House

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Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington” c.1815 by Sir Thomas LAWRENCE (1769-1830) (English Heritage)
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington” c.1815 by Sir Thomas LAWRENCE (1769-1830) (English Heritage)

The first, unworthy thought that most of us will have about an exhibition billed as Wellington, Women and Friendship is that it will be about the Duke’s mistresses. Well, shame on us. This small exhibition – one drawing room, plus the downstairs exhibition space – robustly asserts that the great man in fact set a great deal of store by women as friends. Alas, that didn’t include his poor wife.

As for the mistresses, the curator Josephine Oxley says robustly that we simply don’t know whether his close friendships with women were sexual; the evidence simply isn’t there. Well, certainly the cartoonists and gossips thought otherwise. The exception is the celebrated courtesan Harriet Wilson, whom the young Wellington did in fact visit before his marriage. And it was the prospect of the publication of her memoirs, including her gentleman friends, that elicited his celebrated observation: “Publish and be damned”. She did and she may have been, but Wellington emerges from those memoirs as a bit of a dud in that particular context.

The twenty-odd exhibits here focus on the portraits of the women in Wellington’s life, starting with his redoubtable mother, who sounded ghastly, much preferring her eldest son to her fourth, young Arthur. The portrait displaying her formidable character was by Wellington’s niece, an interestingly accomplished artist.

But the extraordinary absence here is of proper pictures of his wife Kitty. There is one, showing a perfectly attractive, sweet-faced woman, and that is it. In the downstairs exhibition room, there is Kitty’s self portrait, showing her face entirely obscured by her enormous bonnet, but doing credit to the personable donkey she is sitting on.

Poor Kitty. When Wellington, then just Arthur Wellesley, first proposed to her in Ireland he was seen off by her father, the Earl of Longford, who thought he was too poor and obscure. His second proposal was rejected by her brother – we see a pattern here. But when Wellington, ten years later, renewed his suit by letter, the brother embraced a proposal from a man who was now rich and famous after his Indian campaign. Kitty, by then 33, initially responded saying that she had changed greatly in the intervening decade, but Wellington was having none of it. Unfortunately, this rash and romantic stubbornness was misjudged. We see downstairs an entry from the diary entry of another of his woman friends, Harriet Arbuthnot, in whom he confided that he had been “a damned fool” to marry her.

All of which puts in context his attachment to other women, many of them intelligent and interesting individuals. Harriet Arbuthnot, the busy diarist, was a close friend, and obsessed by politics, which seemed to have been what they mostly talked about. Lady Salisbury was another beautiful woman friend; he appreciated the pleasant domesticity of Hatfield House.

The woman who probably gave rise to most gossip was Marrianne Patterson, a striking American. Wellington commissioned Sir Thomas Lawrence to paint both their portraits, which is by any standards, suggestive, resulting in the best-known depiction of the Duke, and a lovely picture of Marrianne – this is the first time the pictures have been exhibited together. Much to Wellington’s chagrin, she ended up as his sister-in-law, marrying his brother when he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. There’s also a portrait of the celebrated philanthropist, Angela Burdett-Coutts as a young and pretty woman. When she was 33 and Wellington a 77 year-old widower, she proposed to him; he declined politely.

But besides the portraits there are reproductions of lewd cartoons about the Duke’s sexual prowess and poignant letters and belongings of Kitty’s. It is a small exhibition which can easily be included in a visit to Apsley House… and if you haven’t already seen its world class permanent art collection, get right over there.

Apsley House, until 31 Oct. Admission included in entrance price, from £12.80

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