Exhibitions / Wellington's booty

Wellington lived surrounded by the spoils of war. Now once again the public can see his collection
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THE reopening of the Wellington Museum at Apsley House has been rather a splendid affair and gives us the opportunity to brood over the nature of a unique art gallery. It used to be a bit dingy, and not much visited, especially after it was taken over by the V&A and entrance charges were imposed. Now, after three and a half years of building work and refurbishment, Apsley House sparkles anew, a palace of gilt and satin with a significant history and a notable collection of paintings.

Yet here's the problem. The V&A have wanted to make Apsley House look as it did in the 1840s, the last years of the Duke of Wellington's life. Archaeological accuracy has been the watchword. Wallpapers and carpets are replicas of the originals. So are all the other incidental furnishings. The paintings have been hung in the places they occupied 150 years ago, so they are placed tier on tier, often against the natural light, sometimes in gloom and at other times with a shimmer reflected from the chandeliers. There has been no concession to modern techniques of lighting and displaying works of art. The result is that more than half of the paintings are - well, I have to say that they are aesthetically damaged.

Take, for instance, the well-known Velasquez picture The Water Seller of Seville. We saw it recently, at the Royal Academy's exhibition of Spanish still-life painting earlier this year. Reviewing that show, I remarked on the painting's perfect gradations of brown, and said that Velasquez was brown's first master, treating it as a colour in its own right, not simply as chiaroscuro (etc, etc). Now, alas, this particular quality of the painting is diminished. And many paintings belonging to the Wellington will reveal their full quality only if they are borrowed by other public galleries.

I'd been looking forward to the sight of many favourites, including the Murillo Isaac Blessing Jacob. This isn't a particularly exalted work, but still seems like an old friend. It's harder to see now than it was before. Another Murillo is called An Unknown Man. Close to, you can't inspect it at all, so baffling to vision are the reflections on its surface. And so on. At Apsley House they are proud that nearly all their paintings are on the walls, but much has been lost. Visitors are asked to appreciate the house itself, rather than to discriminate among its contents.

No doubt that the Wellington Museum is grand. Nowadays you feel that Apsley House is a traffic island. You have to approach it via the dispiriting tunnels below Hyde Park Corner. The cramped situation and the traffic make it an exceptional, small palace. Designed by Robert Adam in the 1770s and enlarged by Benjamin Wyatt in 1828-30, the building was well suited to the first Duke of Wellington, international statesman, hero of Waterloo and prime minister. Everywhere in the house we are reminded of military glory, and there's a feeling of prideful closeness to royal affairs. Yet the real splendour of this mansion goes beyond Georgian England. Nowhere else do we have a house with such direct links to neo- classical Europe.

Its painting collections are of such high quality because they were the spoils of European war. There are 83 canvases at Apsley House that were appropriated from the Spanish royal family. Thus at Hyde Park Corner are works by Correggio, Elsheimer, Rubens and Van Dyck. Then we find sumptuous gifts to Wellington from Charles X of France and Alexander I of Russia. In addition we have paintings and furniture bought by Wellington himself, mainly in Paris, and a large number of early 19th-century portraits, characteristically of his generals, of the Napoleon family and of European royalty. Finally, there's an interesting group of English paintings of the 1820s and 1830s, including David Wilkie's famous Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Despatch.

Hard to pick out the most important paintings from this varied assembly. Things are good in different ways. Wellington's own favourite was the Correggio of The Agony in the Garden. Today, many people will prefer the huge equestrian portrait of Wellington by Goya, even though it was evidently painted very quickly. Wellington's face, incidentally, has been superimposed on that of a previous sitter, who may have been Joseph Bonaparte. This is still a heroic picture, and only Goya could have given it the feeling of tragic waste among the triumphalism. None the less it is not quite the most striking work at Apsley House, for the whole building - not just its separate rooms - appears to depend on Antonio Canova's immense statue of Napoleon, more than 11ft high and situated at the bottom of the house's main staircase.

With the present disputes about The Three Graces by no means over, it's good to have this invigorating evidence of Canova's genius. Except perhaps in the modelling of the head, the Apsley House sculpture has not the perfection of the V&A's new acquisition. It is however marmoreal in a way we find disconcerting. Indeed, Canova's search for perfect carving and surface, the other-worldly whiteness of his conceptions, makes his character hard for us to understand. There has been nothing like this strict yet delicate academicism in later art. So the Napoleon looks far removed from our normal expectations. Even primitive art is closer to our late 20th-century notions of what sculpture should be.

We should clarify the sculpture's theme. Canova's work might be retitled Napoleon as Mars. Though he commissioned the sculpture, it obviously does not represent Napoleon himself, its portraiture being of a more general type. Here is a sculpture of a god as well as of an earthly emperor. The identification with Mars is made certain by the small figure of a Victory carried in the statue's right hand. Of course this makes the work all the more odd, at least in its present setting. It ought to be in the Louvre. I can understand the British government wishing to present the sculpture to Wellington. But how did he think of it himself, this immense and alien nude in his home?

We know that Napoleon was uneasy about the statue's unclothed state, even though classical tradition associated the male nude with the heroism of men of destiny. Protestant and bourgeois England never had much time for such classicism, and it isn't surprising that Canova has never been popular this side of the channel. One of the interesting things about Apsley House is that one feels the provincial taste of Victorianism creeping in. Napoleon commissioned Canova, Wellington commissioned Wilkie. One has affection for the Chelsea Pensioners, but it is not art of a high order. Canova remains unique: no-one could imitate him. Wilkie prepared the ground for Frith - and for Millais, too. His large portrait of George IV is strikingly akin to Millais' style of 40 years later.

I do not think that Wellington was a great collector, though he owned great things. Nor was he a true connoisseur, however much he loved his Correggio. To form a complete picture of his taste we would have to look at his other collection at Stratfield Saye, where there are many sporting paintings among the old masters. Meanwhile we are fortunate to have Apsley House, safe and intact. I hope it becomes a popular museum. Even people who don't respond to painting will marvel at its interior furnishings.

! The Wellington Museum: W1, 0171 499 5676, Tues-Sun 11am-5pm.