Constructed on the site of the Duke of Somerset’s Tudor-era mansion, Somerset House as we know it today owes its origins to a national scheme aimed at creating public buildings in London which would rival those of Continental cities.
The campaign led to the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1775 for the construction of a new public building at Somerset House to house government agencies such as the Navy Office, Salt Office, Surveyor General of Lands, the King’s Bargemaster and the offices of the Duchy of Lancaster and Cornwall as well as various learned societies.
The former building – which had been worked on by the likes of Sir Christopher Wren and which had been used as a residence for the likes of King Charles II’s queen, Catherine of Braganza, following his death, had fallen into a state of considerable disrepair and was demolished in 1775.
William Robinson, secretary of the Office of Works, was initially given the job of designing the new building (much to the discontent of some) but after his sudden death the same year, the task was given to Sir William Chambers, comptroller of the Office of Works and one of England’s leading architects.
The basic design was as it appears today – four ranges built around a central court (now named the Edmond J Safra Fountain Court). The Strand Block, located to the north and the most highly decorated of the buildings inside and out, was built first and largely completed by 1780, the Embankment Building (home of the Navy Office) in 1786 and the east and west ranges two years later.
When Chambers died with the work unfinished in 1796, it was carried to completion by James Wyatt and declared complete in 1801, despite the fact elements of Chambers’ design were still outstanding. It had cost more than £460,000, in excess of three times Robinson’s original estimate.
One of the first new occupants – thanks to a decision by King George III – was the fledgling Royal Academy of Arts (it had been one of the last occupants of the former premises) and its focal point was the Great Exhibition Room where exhibitions were held until 1836. Others in the new building included The Royal Society (it remained until 1837 when, like the RA, it moved to Burlington House) and the Society of Antiquaries (it moved to Burlington House in 1874).
As well as being home to various offices of the Navy Board (the southern building, where it was housed, contains the stunning, now restored, Nelson stair), Somerset House was also home to the Inland Revenue.
New additions were made to the original design in the nineteenth century – the extension of the south block to the east and addition of a New Wing to the west – and the construction of the Victoria Embankment (see our earlier post here) meant the two watergates Chambers had designed became landlocked. Somerset House no longer rose directly from the water as he’d intended but from a roadway (as it does today – we’ve mentioned this before but you can see the original riverbank by looking through the glass floor of the building’s Embankment entrance).
Somerset House is these days home to a range of cultural and artistic organisations – from the British Fashion Council to the National Youth Orchestra and, in the north wing, the Courtauld Institute of Art. And as well as hosting various art installations, the central courtyard is host to an ice-skating rink over winter.
For more on Somerset House, see www.somersethouse.org.uk.