Somerset House on London’s Thames River offers quite a few architectural oddities, at least for someone like me who is attracted to Neoclassical architecture but has never read much about it. When my husband and I were in London last year we took 25 photos of the façade of this 18th-century building. We were both entranced by its figures and ornaments. Later I learned of Somerset House’s two lives.
First Life: 1549-1776
When his nephew, Edward VI, became the boy-king of England in 1547, Edward Seymour became the 1st Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector. An ambitious man, His Grace built a proper palace, one befitting his high status as an uncle of the king. The palace faced the Thames River and enjoyed beautiful aspects of the river and the hills of Surrey.In the process of achieving his dream His Grace destroyed quite a few other buildings. Rudolph Ackermann — Georgian inventor, lithographer, and publisher — had a few pithy comments to say about that:1
The palaces of the Bishops of Chester and Worcester, with the Strand Inn, an inn of Chancery belonging to the Temple, and the church of St. Mary le Strand, were all unceremoniously demolished, to afford a situation for this princely structure; and without any compensation being made to the owners of them.
Apparently, His Grace didn’t stop with grabbing land. To obtain sufficient building materials he also blew up parts of the Tower and the church of St. John of Jerusalem, along with the cloisters on the north side of St. Paul’s cathedral and the chapel. Even worse, he demolished the charnel-house, destroyed the tombs, and scattered the bones of “the sacred dead” at Finsbury fields.2 The architecture of the house reflected a mix of Grecian and Gothic styles imported into England during the reign of Henry VIII.3
His Grace’s arrogance, audacity and government mismanagement won him no favors, and in 1552 he was beheaded on Tower Hill — a fitting end, one might argue. On Somerset’s death, the unfinished property devolved to the Crown. In the 17th century the palace served as a residence for various queens consort. Catharine, queen of Charles II, for example, used it as an asylum from her faithless husband, remaining there even after his death.4
Charles II himself added to the building, drawing upon a design by Inigo Jones, a renown English architect. Unfortunately, Jones’s design was never completed and the entire building was pulled down to make way for a new edifice.
Second Life: 1776 to Present Day
In 1775 the English parliament passed an Act calling for building public offices at Somerset House. The commission was given to Sir William Chambers, Survey-General of Works, for a salary of £2,000 per annum. Think of it: in 1775, when Paul Revere took to the roads to warn the colonial militia that British troops were converging on Lexington and Concord, Sir William began designing and building a masterpiece on the banks of the River Thames. The building would be 500 feet in depth and nearly 800 feet in breadth, forming a huge quadrangle.5
In 1904, when Ackermann’s book The Microcosm of London was republished, the offices situated in Somerset House included the privy seal and signet; the navy (including victualing and sick and wounded seamen); the stamp, tax and lottery; the hackney-coach, hawkers and pedlars; and the surveyor general of crown lands, among others. The offices of the Royal Academy and the Royal and Antiquarian Societies were also located there and “must be viewed with astonishment and admiration by the stranger who visits them.”6
Mind you, not everybody thought the architecture was grand. Here’s a comment submitted by a gentleman (presumably) to the editor of the Somerset House Miscellany:7
The prevailing notion of Somerset House … is, that it is a vast pile, raised at an enormous expense of the public purse, and after all, but a monument of our nation’s ignorance in the noble science of architecture.
Well! Do speak your mind, sir. I reckon I’m one of the ignorant ones, for I found the building’s mermen and ornaments quite interesting.
Here are two of my favorites:
Today’s Somerset House offers a wealth of activities, from skating during the winter to special events such as Utopia 2016, a celebration of the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s inspirational text. It is also home to The Courtauld Institute of Art, which exhibits some of the world’s most impressive and cherished paintings, sculpture, and works of decorative art. And for readers who care to see a really nice photo of Somerset House, click on this link to The Courtauld’s blog for young people, which shows the building in bright sunshine.
1Ackermann, A. “Somerset-House,” in: The Microcosm of London or London in Miniature, Vol. III, London: Methuen & Co., 1904, p. 86 (PDF p. 119).
2Ibid., p. 87 (PDF p. 120).
3Ibid., p. 90 (PDF p. 125)
4Ibid., p. 88 (PDF p. 123).
5Ibid., p. 92 (PDF p. 127).
6Ibid., pp. 96-97 (PDF pp. 131-132).
7Hardcastle, Ephraim. Somerset House Gazette and Literary Museum; or, Miscellany of Fine Arts, Antiquities, and Literary Chit Chat, Vol. I. (London: W. Wetton, 1824), p. 114 (PDF p. 77).