The Wellington Collection, Apsley House

21 April – 30 October 2022

A new exhibition exploring the relationships between the 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), his wife Kitty and other women who were close to him, opens at Apsley House, his London home, this April.

In the 170-years since his death, the Duke’s reputation as a great military strategist and statesman has tended to overshadow his reputation during his lifetime, which was that he was something of a ‘ladies’ man’.

1st Duke of Wellington, Sir Thomas Lawrence 1818 – Wellington Collection, Apsley House

Through letters, portraits and much more, on loan from public and private collections, Wellington, Women and Friendship will present an intimate picture of a very public life; revealing Wellington’s social circle, his marriage and how his friendships with women could sometimes provoke rumour and gossip.

Wellington, Women and Friendship presents twenty works including paintings, miniatures, drawings and previously unseen or published letters, plus contemporary cartoons which present a window onto the world of society gossip during the 19TH-century. Many of these portraits of the woman he corresponded with hung in his own home during his lifetime.

From the moment he secured victory at the battle of Waterloo in June 1815, Wellesley’s status as a national treasure was assured. As Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portraits attest, with his high cheekbones, aquiline nose and piercing blue eyes, for the rest of his life the Duke commanded both female attention and that of a grateful public.

The story that inspired Wellington, Women & Friendship begins in 1792, when the 24-year-old Arthur Wesley (the family had yet to change its name to Wellesley) proposed to Catherine ‘Kitty’ Pakenham, daughter of Lord Longford. The pair had met in their native Dublin, where they danced, talked of books and fell in love. However, Kitty’s father was unimpressed, rejecting the young suitor and sending him off with ‘advice’ about how he should improve himself. Lord Longford concluded that the fourth son of a minor aristocratic family, with little money, was not for his daughter.

Wellesley thought differently and proposed a second time but was again rebutted. At this point, he decided to throw all his energy into the army and left for India. Although he would not see Kitty again for ten years, his courtship with her was far from over. Soon, letters started to travel from India to Ireland. When Wellesley returned home in late 1805, he renewed his offer of marriage. Conscious of their long separation, Kitty wrote to him saying: “I do not think it is fair to engage you before you are quite positively certain that I am indeed the very woman you could choose for a companion, a friend for life. In so many years I have been much changed.”

1st Duchess of WellingtonSir Thomas Lawrence Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust

Perhaps showing the indomitable spirit that would later defeat Napoleon, Wellington redoubled his request for Kitty’s hand in marriage. Despite not seeing each other before his ultimate bid, Kitty agreed and Wellington duly declared himself the “happiest man in the world”.

Sadly, it proved to be a rash choice by both parties. Some years later Wellington confided to his friend Harriet Arbuthnot, that he had been a “damned fool”.  In 1808, after less than two years of marriage and two children, Wellington went off to war in Spain and Portugal and did not return until 1814.

Upon his return home, both their lives had changed. Kitty now found herself married to a hero and when Wellington was made Ambassador in Paris, she too was suddenly thrown into the spotlight. She loathed the experience, whilst her husband revelled in his new status. By 1815 after the Battle of Waterloo and the defeat of Napoleon, Arthur Wellesley was the most famous man in Europe. It seemed inconceivable that Wellington would simply retreat from public life and return to quiet domesticity with Kitty. Their marriage was doomed.

Kitty preferred to stay at Stratfield Saye their country estate, she too had her own circle of friends and family and often she and her husband led separately social lives.  Wellington surrounded himself with a coterie of female friends, causing much gossip. With aristocratic ladies, including Charlotte Greville (1775-1862), Frances Wedderburn-Webster (1793-1837) and in Paris the beautiful Italian opera singer, Giuseppina Grassini (1773-1850), Wellington did little to dispel his burgeoning reputation as a somewhat dashing character.    

1st Duchess of Wellington at her easel – Sir Thomas Lawrence

However, what may have been begun as flirtations appear to have developed into genuinely platonic friendships, among whom Harriet Arbuthnot (1793-1834) and Lady Salisbury (1802-1839) were his closest confidantes. Harriet, the wife of the politician Charles Arbuthnot (1767-1850), was also deeply interested in politics and, as her journals on display will show, her relationship with Wellington was tender, playful but not sexual. 

One of Wellington’s more intriguing friendships was with Mrs Marianne Patterson (1788-1853), an American whom he met in 1816. He became infatuated with her, although there is little or no evidence to suggest a physical relationship. Nevertheless, Marianne was very much aware that people were gossiping and concerned that rumours may reach her family back home in Maryland. The situation was not helped by Wellington who commissioned Sir Thomas Lawrence  in 1818, to paint both their portraits. The resultant painting of the Duke became the most iconic image of him. Wellington presented her with the painting and she kept it until her death in 1854 and bequeathed it to the 2nd Duke. Marianne’s portrait was hung at Stratfield Saye, where it normally remains, but will be on display alongside that of Wellington for the very first time in this exhibition at Apsley House.

Marianne Patterson, Sir Thomas Lawrence 1818 Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust

Wellington remained a keen correspondent with women right through his life, and with his advancing years came a greater variety in his friendships. He continued to enjoy the company of young people, with his cherished niece, Lady Priscilla Burghersh (1793-1879), wrote to him constantly and was a key figure in his life throughout the 1820s and 30s.

Even in his old age, the Duke was dogged by rumour. His friendship with Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906) caused quite a stir, especially when she proposed to him in 1847, when she was 33-years old and he 77. With the dignity befitting a man of his status – he wrote to her “not to throw yourself away upon a man old enough to be your Grandfather.”

Josephine Oxley, Keeper of the Wellington Collection, Aspley House and curator of Wellington, Women & Friendship says:It’s wonderful to be able to bring together some of the women who were important to Wellington throughout his life. Visitors will see that his relationships, with both his wife and all his female friends, were complex rather than purely black and white. There were many grey areas.

“Wellington’s social life was really defined by women, he was always closer to women, both in his family and beyond, than he was to men which might surprise people who only see Wellington as a military figure.”

“What exactly was the Duke’s relationship with all these women? The exhibition lets you draw your own conclusion, and on a facsimile 19th-century writing slope at the exit, we are inviting visitors to tell us what they think.”

His Grace, the Duke of Wellington says “I am delighted that we have been able to bring to The Wellington Collection at Apsley House so many images of the women who played such an important part in Wellington’s life. We still have thousands of letters which he wrote to these ladies, and he dedicated a great deal of time to his friendships”