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Wellington Arch, London

Wellington Arch, also known as Constitution Arch or (originally) the Green Park Arch, is a triumphal arch located to the south of Hyde Park in central London and at the western corner of Green Park (although it is now isolated on a traffic island).

The arch, and Marble Arch (originally sited in front of Buckingham Palace), were both planned in 1825 by George IV to commemorate Britain’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars. The Wellington Arch was also conceived as an outer gateway to Constitution Hill and therefore a grand entrance into central London from the west. The presence of a turnpike gate at this point had led, in the 18th century, to a strong perception that this was the beginning of London (reflected in the nickname for Apsley House as “No 1, London”) and the arch was intended to reflect the importance of the position.

The Wellington Arch was built between 1826-1830 to a design by Decimus Burton. Much of the intended exterior ornamentation was omitted as a cost-saving exercise necessitated by the King’s overspending on the refurbishment of Buckingham Palace, which was under way at the same time. The arch originally stood almost directly opposite the Duke of Wellington’s, Apsley House, a short distance from, and at a right-angles to, its present location. It faced the screen, also designed by Decimus Burton, and still in its original location, which forms the Hyde Park Corner entrance to Hyde Park. It was intended to form part of a grand ceremonial route towards Buckingham Palace.

In 1846 the arch was selected as a location for a statue of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, soldier and Prime Minister. The bronze Wellington Statue by Matthew Cotes Wyatt which eventually crowned the arch was at 40 tons (40.62 tonne)) and 28 feet (8.53 m) high, the largest equestrian figure ever made. It generated considerable controversy and ridicule at the time. Motions were put in place to move it to a different location but as this could have be seen as insulting to Wellington it was left in place on the orders of the Queen and remained there throughout the remainder of the duke’s lifetime.

In 1882-83, the arch was moved a short distance to its present location on Hyde Park Corner to facilitate a road widening scheme. In the new location it lost its original relationship to the entrance of Hyde Park, but acquired a new function as the entrance to Constitution Hill. It is now in the centre of a large traffic island, claimed from what was the western tip of Green Park.

When the arch was rebuilt in its new position, the Wellington Statue was not replaced. Instead it was removed to Aldershot, and a smaller equestrian statue of the duke was commissioned from Joseph Edgar Boehm to stand on a plinth nearby. Decimus Burton had originally envisaged a sculpture of a quadriga on top of the arch,; His intentions were finally realised in 1912, with the installation of a huge bronze designed by Adrian Jones. It is based on a smaller original which caught the eye of Edward VII at a Royal Academy exhibition. The sculpture depicts the angel of peace descending on the chariot of war. The face of the charioteer leading the quadriga is that of a small boy (actually the son of Lord Michelham, the man who funded the sculpture). The angel of peace was modeled on Beatrice Stewart. The statue is the largest bronze sculpture in Europe.

The arch is hollow inside, and until 1992 housed a small police station. Transferred to the ownership of English Heritage in 1999, it is open to the public and contains three floors of exhibits detailing the history of the arch and some of its uses. Visitors can also step onto terraces on both sides of the top of the arch, which give views of the surrounding area. One half of the arch functions as a ventilation shaft for the London Underground network. This causes on average three emergency calls each year to the London Fire Brigade from people believing there to be smoke coming from the arch when in fact it is warm air and dust from the underground network.

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