Tudor palace, art academy, chemistry lab, open-air cinema – the grandiose Somerset House has evolved with the times
In those rare pockets of sunshine stitched into the lining of a typical English summertime, there is no finer place to while away the hours than the grand, neoclassical courtyard of Somerset House. As children drench themselves in the 55 jets of the Edmond J Safra Fountain Court, elderly couples sip tea on the al fresco seats of the various cafés, and 30-something culture-vultures dip in and out of the many galleries that line the courtyard, it is easy to imagine that all of London life is here.
In truth, it has always been so. The four sides of the courtyard have provided a welcoming architectural embrace to all manner of different people, projects and institutions over the years. After Sir William Chambers was commissioned to design the current Somerset House in 1775, The Royal Academy of Arts became the building’s first resident, hosting annual exhibitions in what is now the North Wing. (Look out for a bust of Italian Renaissance man Michelangelo – “the first of the artists” – above a doorway in the North Wing’s vestibule as you enter from The Strand.)
In 1789, the Navy Board had joined them, meaning that Viscount Nelson worked here for a time in between various excursions as part of the Napoleonic Wars. Interestingly, the busy traffic thoroughfare that is the Victoria Embankment didn’t exist at that time, so the walls of Somerset House rather appropriately butted up against the lapping waters of the Thames itself. In fact, the Great Arch on the Embankment side of the building was once used as an access point for river vessels approaching such as the Navy Commissioner’s barge.
By the 19th century, the Board of Taxes (later the Inland Revenue), the Society of Antiquaries and the General Register Office, responsible for births, deaths and marriages, were all stationed at Somerset House. Chemist George Philips even ran a laboratory here, primarily working for the Inland Revenue to test the “adulteration” of tobacco, and later food, beer and spirits. Back in the Tudor era, meanwhile, the original Somerset House building was even home to the young Princess Elizabeth prior to her coronation in 1558.
The Tudor king Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria would later hold lavish ‘masques’ (a sort of elaborately staged form of court entertainment popular in the 16th and 17th century) at the original venue too.
Royals would don costumes and celebrate their perceived divine right to rule, with festivities known to last up to 12 hours. Today the venue’s focus is more culture and entertainment than it is governmental or royal business, but the sheer range of events and uses is no less impressive.
The Courtauld Gallery stages important exhibitions of modern and Old Master artworks, while the courtyard is home to open-air cinema and concerts in the summer (singers Amy Winehouse and Adele have previously graced the temporary stage), as well as an ice rink, Skate, in the winter. Many of these popular activities have been made possible thanks to the Somerset House Trust, which was established in 1997.
“At the heart of Somerset House’s ethos lies preserving and renewing one of London’s most historic buildings and opening the space up for the public to enjoy,” explains the Trust’s deputy director, Diana Spiegelberg. “A key focus has been to open up the New Wing, the last part of the site to come back to us from the Inland Revenue. Last October we opened Somerset House Studios as a new home to some of the UK’s most exciting artists, makers and thinkers.”
While making Somerset House a more appealing place to visit, such ventures are also key to the venue’s long-term viability too. “Unusually for a large-scale cultural centre, Somerset House receives no public funding,” explains Spiegelberg. “Investing in the preservation and development of the building relies on self-generated funds and the generosity of our supporters.” What a comfort to think that a visit to this historic venue is not only an enjoyable day out, but also helping to safeguard the institution for future generations.