The Portuguese Service at Number One, London

Lynne Booker July 2015

Link to the Portugal Resident

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Number one, London is the name given to Apsley House, one of the homes of the First Duke of Wellington. The House has been a national shrine to the victor of Waterloo, the liberator of Europe from Napoleon almost from the day he bought it in 1817.

The state dining room is dominated by the Centrepiece from the Portuguese Service. The Portuguese Service is in silver and silver-gilt and was presented to Wellington by the Portuguese Council of Regency in 1816 in commemoration of the Allied victories over Napoleon Bonaparte´s armies in the Peninsular War. It is extraordinary that a small country, in the aftermath of a destructive war over six years in Portugal, could afford a gift of such magnitude. The amount of silver required was immense, and it was acquired by melting down Spanish coinage. A small army of workers from the Royal Arsenal supplied the labour to create this astonishing piece.

The Service is 8.03m in length and 1.07m wide. So big in fact, that the recipient needed a palace to house it. In addition to the Centrepiece, there are hundreds of items of silver and silver-gilt tableware, cutlery and dishes on up to tureens of huge dimensions. In the centre, figures representing the 4 continents pay tribute to the united armies of Portugal, Britain and Spain. There are 21 plateaux arranged singly or in threes each bearing fantastic beasts, allegorical figures, columns and other symbols of military victory. Battles are named on individual plaques in chronological order.

The Centrepiece was for a long time a part of the collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum and is the largest precious metal object in any of the Victoria and Albert collections and it was completely overhauled in time for the reopening of Apsley House in 1995. It is one of the most important examples of neo-classical silver ever made in Europe. The full Service comprises over 1 000 pieces and was designed by the court painter Domingos António Sequeira and made at the artist´s and neighbouring houses from 1812 to 1816. This work was Sequeira´s first commission in metal.

Domingos António Sequeira 1768 - 1837 was a famous painter at the court of D João VI. In early life he changed his name from Espírito Santo to Sequeira (Espírito Santo was a name often given to foundlings, and Sequeira was much more aristocratic). He studied for some time in Rome and in 1802 was appointed first court painter to D Maria I of Portugal. He painted the famous vision of D Afonso Henriques in The Miracle of Ourique, and many of his paintings are in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon. He was skillful enough to earn respect even in the notoriously plain Royal family of the day, and was inspired to some of his best work after seeing an exhibition in the 1820s of the work of J M W Turner.

The Service arrived in London in 1816 for formal presentation to the Duke. It had suffered in transit ( the crossing was apparently quite rough). Pieces had become twisted squashed or bent, and the silver plateaux themselves were scratched and tarnished. Repairs and additions to the centrepiece took place under the guidance of silversmiths Rundells and Garrards.

But what a gift to receive! It presents a challenge in terms of maintenance and handling because it is so unwieldy and yet vulnerable to mishandling and to atmosphere. It requires frequent cleaning by sympathetic operatives. The Duke had a special mahogany table designed to support this immense gift.

The Centrepiece was acquired for the nation in 1948 and was repaired at various times, and, in September 1993, the major overhaul began, and was completed in time for the opening of the House to the public in June 1995. Each of the sections was conservated separately ( the conserving studio could not accommodate the whole display) and as each section was repacked fors storage, photos of the complete sections were attached to the outside of the storage crates.

The surfaces were either well protected by lacquer or else completely blackened by tarnish, and the whole was completely cleaned by use of acetone swabs. Older repairs were made good and extensive use of araldite and silver solder saw the work to completion, after which it was cleaned with Goddards Silverdip and impregnated silver cloth. The whole was then degreased with acetone, before being lacquered once more with Frigilene, with up to three coats. Care had to be taken when it was reassembled not to graze the lacquer or even the metal itself.

Replacing the Centrepiece on its table was a special team job. The central piece needed six people to lift and place it on the table, and of course it had to be aligned correctly so that the other pieces would fit accurately on the table. Each of the outlying pieces required to be lifted and placed by four or five people actually on the table.

This amazing work of silversmith art took over 1700 hours from dismantling to re-erection, and is in itself a fitting tribute to the life and work of the First Duke of Wellington.

This service has witnessed many historical occasions. Each year until his death in September 1852, the First Duke held a Waterloo Dinner on Waterloo Day to which survivors of the battle were invited. At the dinner one year, the Prince Regent boasted of his success in the great heavy cavalry charge at Waterloo. He called on the Duke to support his assertion, and Wellington replied, 'I have often heard your majesty say so'. Not only a great military commander, but also a master of diplomacy.

Peter and I have arranged battle dinners to mark the bicentenary of some of the more important battles. Peter started with a talk about Trafalgar in 2005. His controversial talk about Waterloo on 26 June 2015, sadly, was the last in the series.