Today I visited Apsley House. How many times, I thought, have I passed this splendid building by in full knowledge that I could wander in and have a look? But as so often happens, when you live in a city, there is no urgency and it has been endlessly postponed – until today when it began to drizzle slightly after brunch, and the lurking thesis guilt suggested that I ought to look at some paintings rather than shop or have a nap. It is a perfect small museum – a manageable bite of the National Gallery, but with the history of a family – or rather one man, the Duke of Wellington – to lend a narrative and sense of historical context to the collection of stunning paintings.
Those that stood out for me were the Breughels – tiny, detailed and luminescent – and the Spanish masters: Velazquez’s Water-Seller of Seville, Murillo’s St. Francis, and Ribera’s St. James the Great, with such character etched in their faces, or even just in the lines on a forehead or the gnarled, wrinkled hands. In the dining room, the monarchs of early C19th Europe surrounded a dining table with the most elaborate centrepiece I have ever seen, celebrating the Wellington’s victories in the Peninsular Wars. In the long gallery, added in 1828 to hold the annual Waterloo dinners, mirrors, reflecting the candlelight at night, slid across to reveal windows in daytime. Genius.