Since September 2013, Somerset House has been the setting for my postgraduate study in History of Art. Despite the fact that I spend most of my life lurking behind its big stone walls, it’s been easy to overlook the magnificence of this former riverside palace as I’ve been so preoccupied with work. So in a state of guilt and repentance, I did some research and gathered some interesting facts about the beautiful Somerset House.
1. Somerset House was born out of the Duke of Somerset’s desire to own a grand palace along the river Thames in the mid-sixteenth century. The Duke, Edward Seymour (Lord Protector, brother of Lady Jane Seymour and uncle to King Edward VI), wanted the palace to accommodate his new position of nobility, created for him by his young nephew after the death of King Henry VIII. The original building looked nothing like what we see now, and in fact only comprised of the North wing (the Courtauld Institute and Gallery), from there to the riverbank made up the garden area. Unfortunately for the Duke, he was never able to see the completion of his palace as he was executed for treason in 1552. Fans of The Tudors, the historical-fiction tv programme that has been fundamental in my education of Tudor England, will know the Duke of Somerset to be this man:
2. In the 1500’s the Strand was fast becoming a fashionable area for nobility and aristocracy – it was essentially a strand of palaces, those of York, Durham, Exeter, Savoy, and Arundel were also located there. To make room for his own Strand palace, the Duke of Somerset demolished buildings on and around his chosen site, the materials from which were then used in the building’s construction.
3. After the execution of the Duke, Somerset House was appropriated by the crown and given first to Queen Elizabeth I, and later to King James I in 1603. James’s cultivated Queen (Anne of Denmark) took Somerset House under her own patronage, renaming it Denmark House and turning it into a cultural and social centre. Anne used Denmark House to promote the English masque – a form of dancing and acting performed by masked players – employing the poet Ben Johnson to write them and Inigo Jones to design the costumes and sets. Anne also undertook a major reconstruction of the palace from 1609 to 1619, when she died, adding on to the existing building and covering the riverfront in stone.
3. From 1693 to 1774, Somerset House was mothballed and began to sink into obscurity and dilapidation. It was only when the Board of Works informed King George III in 1774 that large parts of the palace were beginning to collapse that it returned to the fore. The government then decided to demolish the ruins and commission a new building to take its place. It would house government offices and departments scattered around the Palace of Whitehall as well as the main learned societies, turning it into a beehive of the Empire.
4. As the new Somerset House was to hold the three principal learned societies, it was to be the original site of the newly formed Royal Academy of Arts – the other two being the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquarians. It was only in 1868, a hundred years after the Academy’s foundation, that it moved to Burlington House after a brief stay in the National Gallery.
5. Upon moving into Somerset House, one of the first discoveries made by a fellow of the Royal Society, in 1781, was the identification of a new planet. Originally wanting to call it Georgium Sidus, after the King, it more sensibly became Uranus!
6. In the Tudor period, the Thames-side of Somerset House had a garden with steps leading down to the river. When William Chambers began to redesign the building in the 1770’s, he replaced the garden with large vaults (the main Great Arch is today the entrance to the exhibition space of Somerset House) and a beautiful terrace on top. At the time, before the construction of Embankment in the nineteenth-century, the river reached the foot of the building and watergates led under and into it – it looked like this:
7. As it was so conveniently by the river, the new Somerset House also became the headquarters of the Navy Board. During this time the Navy was extremely vital to Britain, who seemed to constantly be at war. Thus the government and King George III also wanted the reconstructed palace to reflect the rising importance of the Navy in celebration of its strength and power. Looking around the building you can still see the many carvings and reliefs of marine motifs decorating the exterior of the building.
8. In 1831 the East Wing of Somerset House formally opened as part of Kings College of London and is still, to this day, part of the University.
9. In 1932 Samuel Courtauld founded the Courtauld Institute of Art in the North Wing of Somerset House, moving his vast art collection into the galleries (formally the site of the Royal Academy of Art) on one side and setting up a centre for the study of art history and conservation on the other.
10. More recently, Somerset House has been the location and setting for a number of films and television programmes – including, James Bond (Tomorrow Never Dies and Golden Eye), The Duchess starring Keira Knightley, Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law…and, until recently, HESTON BLUMENTHAL’s new Chocolate programme!