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I must have passed Apsley House, that neoclassical town house parked incongruously on the edge of the hellish roundabout of London’s Hyde Park Corner, 100 times, or even 500 times. I had never entered the London residence of the Duke of Wellington and his descendants until last week. There was something gloomy or forlorn about it; it did not seem a joyful or attractive place.

When I finally plucked up the courage to go through the rather modest double wooden doors of the house once known as “Number One, London”, I found that sense was not just mine; the current Duke of Wellington says that, as a child, he always found the house “dark and frightening”. The Duke puts that down to the dingy state of the interior decoration in the 1940s, blackened by soot from the coal fires that were the only source of heat. English Heritage (which looks after Apsley House, though the Wellesley family keeps private apartments on the second floor) recently restored the interior to a high standard, with beautiful silk and satin wall-hangings and newly woven carpets; but the impression of darkness, and even of a certain dinginess, somehow remains.

I knew that my aversion to Apsley House had been depriving me for years of one of London’s greatest artistic experiences: the wonderful collection of Spanish and other paintings acquired by the first Duke of Wellington; in particular, four works by the “painter of painters” (Manet’s words), Diego Velázquez.

The story of how the Iron Duke came by those paintings is quite fascinating; dark and bloody in some ways, marked by nobility and generosity in others. They had been looted from the Spanish Royal Collection by Joseph Bonaparte, elder brother of Napoleon, whom the latter installed on the Spanish throne in 1808. Following the defeat of the French forces by British, Spanish and Portuguese troops under Wellington at the Battle of Vitoria in 1813, the paintings were recovered from Bonaparte’s baggage train (some had been used to protect donkeys). But Wellington did not simply carry them off in triumph; rather remarkably, he offered to give them back to King Ferdinand VII of Spain. The offer was turned down: the Spanish ambassador Fernán-Núñez wrote to Wellington: “His Majesty, touched by your delicacy, does not wish to deprive you of that which has come into your possession by means as just as they are honourable.”

Delicacy was not a characteristic I had associated with the Iron Duke but I found more signs of it at Apsley House. The traces of Wellington’s great foe Napoleon, and his family, are almost as palpable there as those of Wellington himself; even more so perhaps, given the positioning of Canova’s vast marble statue of the naked Napoleon (which Napoleon himself loathed) in the stairwell. You could regard this as triumphalism but I see it as a mark of respect. After all, Wellington once said Napoleon’s presence on the field “made the difference of 40,000 men”.

All in all, I think the slight sense of sadness and darkness, and of the equivocal nature of victory, that hangs over the London home of England’s greatest military hero, is not inappropriate. They certainly do things very differently in other countries not far away. Neither does Apsley House hide the fact that Wellington was a failure as a peacetime leader.

As we know, Wellington was not one to gloat over victories; he wrote that his heart was broken by the terrible carnage at Waterloo. “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” For that reason, I doubt that he shared the view of Benjamin West, president of the Royal Academy, when he inspected the paintings captured at Vitoria: “The Correggio and Giulio Romano ought to be framed in diamonds …it was worth fighting the battle for them.”

No paintings are worth fighting battles over but paintings are often among the spoils of war. Not long ago in St Petersburg I was marvelling at the Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings displayed on the first floor of the Winter Palace, while pondering the darkness of their history. These works, including Degas’ “Place de la Concorde”, Renoir’s “In the Garden” and Van Gogh’s “White House by Night”, were plundered by the Red Army in Germany in 1945, mainly from private collections, then kept hidden until 1991. Now looted art is once again in the news, with the amazing haul found in Munich.

Wellington comes out of all this rather well, with his offer of return. Perhaps paintings never have blood on their hands; by contrast, they can bear witness to the humanity that survives barbarity. Few paintings encapsulate the nobility of ordinary, humble humanity better than Velázquez’s “The Water-Seller of Seville”, the artist’s first masterpiece. Velázquez took it with him when he left Seville for Madrid, where it was acquired by his friend Don Juan de Fonseca. At Fonseca’s death, Velázquez valued the painting at 400 reales, more than any other painting in Fonseca’s collection. Maybe it helped soften the crusty old Iron Duke’s heart.

harry.eyres@ft.com, @sloweyres

More columns at ft.com/eyres

This article has been corrected since publication to reflect the fact that Joseph Bonaparte was Napoleon’s elder brother

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