A Triumphal Arch

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View from the top of Wellington Arch

Owned by English Heritage, Wellington Arch, built with the intention of being used as an entrance to Buckingham Palace, still stands in the heart of London and is open to visitors to explore. Since becoming a memorial to celebrate the Duke of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon, the arch is a museum dedicated to the war, particularly the Battle of Waterloo and the ensuing victory.

For £5, visitors can climb (or take the lift) to the top of the arch and take in the views over London’s Royal Parks from the balconies on either side. One side faces towards Hyde Park and Apsley House – the Duke of Wellington’s residence – whereas the other balcony provides views into the garden of Buckingham Palace (if the trees are not in the way) and the entrance to Green Park.

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Wellington Arch, English Heritage

From the outside, it is hard to believe that the arch is hollow, let alone big enough to contain a museum and gift shop. Beginning on the top floor, visitors can make their way through an exhibition about the Battle of Waterloo, which celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2015.

On 18th June 1815, the 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), led an army of British, Belgian, Dutch and German troops onto the battle fields at Waterloo in Belgium, to stand against the tyrannical French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte’s (1769-1821) Armée du Nord. War had been raging since 1792 as France tried to extend her territory, but this final battle was to put an end to Napoleon’s dictatorial empire.

The exhibition only focuses on the final battle of the Napoleonic War, although it acknowledges other battles, such as Trafalgar for which a significant monument stands proudly in the capital. Information boards containing facts, figures and historical details are illustrated with paintings of the battles and the armies involved.

Brief biographies are also provided of the three key players in the Battle of Waterloo. Most people assume that the war was fought by two armies, one led by Wellington and the other by Napoleon. However, this war was not as simple as Britain versus France, in fact, Wellington’s army contained just as many Belgian and Dutch soldiers as it did British. Without the alliance of Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, the Prince of Wahlstatt (1742-1819), and his Prussian army, the Duke of Wellington may not have achieved the impressive victory that altered the future of Europe.

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Wellington’s boots

Located in glass cases are a variety of items belonging to Arthur Wellesley, including commemorative memorabilia, weapons and the renowned boots that gave Wellington boots their name. After touring this exhibition and listening to the recordings and video provided, visitors will be well educated about the successful battle.

Commencing on a lower floor is a second exhibition concentrating on the arch itself as opposed to the war it now commemorates. Interestingly, the arch, commissioned by the Office of Woods and Forests in 1824, was not intended for the celebration of a war hero. The Office wanted new railings and gateways for the royal parks and commissioned the very young architect Decimus Burton (1800-81) to produce the designs. This was a substitute for the elaborate gateway designed by Sir John Soane.

Initially, Decimus Burton planned for two arches, one to lead into Hyde Park and the opposite to lead into Green Park. The latter would also be an entrance to Constitution Hill and Buckingham Palace and correspond to a neoclassical design, adorned with sculptures commemorating Britain’s victories over Napoleon.

Decimus Burton was a diligent designer, not only did he produce detailed drawings, he sketched certain sections to scale in order to fully show his intentions. Examples of his plans for Corinthian capitals to sit on top of the columns are shown in the exhibition as well as his proposition for ornamental designs of guardsmen and a quadriga (four-horse drawn chariot). Unfortunately, money became scarce and Burton’s arch was left plain with a lack of character.

So, how did this austere arch become known as Wellington Arch? In the 1830s, committees were formed to promote the idea of erecting memorials for the two British army leaders who fought victoriously against Napoleon. For Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), who died on the battlefield, a towering column was erected in Trafalgar Square with a statue of the hero upon the crest. The Wellington Memorial Committee was less ambitious and, as the Green Park arch was positioned facing the Duke’s home, it was proposed that a statue of Wellington be planted on top.

In 1838, Matthew Cotes Wyatt (1777-1862), a Victorian painter and sculptor, was commissioned to design the giant equestrian statue of the Duke. By 1846 it was completed and, much to Decimus Burton’s horror, positioned atop the arch. Despite its memorial purpose, the public ridiculed it, claiming it to be ugly and disproportionate to the rest of the structure. However, as the Duke of Wellington was still alive, he demanded that the government keep his statue in place otherwise he would take full offence at its removal. Finally, in 1883, thirty-one years after the Duke’s death, the statue was removed and re-erected in Aldershot Garrison – a military town in Hampshire.

A particularly fascinating fact about the renamed Wellington Arch is that it is no longer situated in its original position. The arch was moved! By the 1870s, the Hyde Park Corner area was becoming more crowded. Despite it still being a pre-motor vehicle era, the amount of carriages on the roads was increasing as rapidly as London was expanding. The arch in its original position caused too many traffic jams, so in 1883, the government instructed the careful dismantling of the structure so that it could be repositioned out of the way.

Wellington Arch stood in its new place, statue-less, for three decades until a retired cavalry vet turned sculptor, Adrian Jones (1845-1938) produced a model of a quadriga that could potentially be erected where the Duke’s statue once stood. This would also respect the original designs of Decimus Burton, whose idea of a quadriga never came to fruition as a result of poor funding.

Although Edward VII approved Jones’s proposal, there was still a distinct lack of money in order to complete the job. It was not until 1912, after a secret donation from the wealthy banker, Lord Michelham, that the bronze sculpture was finally put in place where it still remains today.

The exhibition about the designing of the arch displays life size replicas of a few of the features of the quadriga sculpture. The quadriga is made up of the angel of peace descending upon a chariot pulled by four rearing horses that, in this instance, represent war. This is an allusion to the memory of the triumphant final battle at Waterloo.

Since 1999, Wellington Arch has been owned by English Heritage, refurbished and opened to the public in 2001. However, the arch was in use as a building long before the charity took over. The southern leg of the arch was used as a park keeper’s residence for just over 50 years, whilst the northern section was converted into London’s smallest police station. Fitted with telegraph wires, the police station remained until the 1950s, but after its closure, the arch remained uninhabited.

With thanks to English Heritage, the arch is open for all to enter and contains a wealth of information about its history and about the battle of which it is honouring. Successfully refurbished, the arch-cum-museum feels spacious and easy to navigate – a complete contrast to the impression presented when viewing the structure from outside. Not only are English Heritage preserving a historical piece of architecture, they are keeping the past alive, educating Londoners and tourists about an important war that is generally omitted from school syllabuses.

At only £5 (for adults), Wellington Arch is worth the visit, if not for the museum, then for the views from the balconies. Although the current exhibition in the Quadriga Gallery is about the quadriga (naturally), it has contained different exhibitions in the past. This goes to suggest that the future may see alternative displays, which will be worth looking out for.

English Heritage cares for over 400 historic monuments, buildings and places – Registered Charity 1140351