The current Somerset House, a magnificent neoclassical structure built at the end of the eighteenth century as a home for various government departments, especially those linked to the Navy and tax offices, also served as an early home of the Royal Academy. Its predecessor building was a royal palace, and home of three English queens. (Read more on Somerset House’s history below). Nowadays the building is run by a charitable trust dedicated to advancing public education through the promotion of arts and culture, and it provides workspace for hundreds of artists and many creative organisations throughout the multiple rooms on the site.
The following areas are ordinarily open to the public:
The Courtauld Gallery
The Courtauld Institute of Art, a largely independent college of the University of London, occupies the North Wing of Somerset House. A large part of the premises is given over to the Courtauld Gallery which houses a world-renowned art collection open to the public. (The arches shown in the adjacent picture form the Strand entrance to the rest of Somerset House).
The art is arranged over a number of floors, linked by lift and by elegant, restored staircases (not to be confused with the Nelson stair mentioned below) from the original 250-year old design.
On the first floor, the Medieval and Early Renaissance gallery displays European devotional art and iconography glistening with gold leaf alongside Islamic fine metalwork of the same period. Richly coloured altar pieces include the Seilern Triptych (also known as the Entombment), attributed to Robert Campin and considered one of the finest examples of Northern Renaissance art.
The second floor Blavatnik Fine Rooms showcase works from the Renaissance to the 1700s including Cranach’s Adam and Eve, works by Botticelli, Bruegel the Elder, and one of the most significant British collections of works by Peter Paul Rubens.
At the top of the gallery is the aptly-name Great Room, former eighteenth-century home of the Royal Academy’s exhibitions, and now host to the Courtauld’s impressionist and post-impressionist art by Manet, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gaugin, Renoir and Monet.
The Fountain Court
This large open courtyard is sometimes used for special exhibitions and events, but often the public can access the space at no charge and wander around. Frequently in the warmer months the fountains are turned on, and 55 jets of water spring forth from the paved surface at varying heights to the delight of children who can play amongst them (see main picture above). During the winter the Fountain Court plays host to a popular ice rink. A charge is made for use of the rink and skate hire.
The Seamen’s Hall
Not particularly interesting in its own right, this hall provides an information point and access to some of the restaurants and display spaces if there are temporary exhibitions happening, as well as access to the public River Terrace which hosts a bar during the summer. Visitors can sometimes walk down a corridor leading off the hall to take a look at the Nelson Stair, perhaps the most remarkable of several unsupported stone staircases throughout Somerset House. The staircase, once known as the Navy Stair led to the Navy Boardroom, and was renamed in honour of Nelson who apparently used it frequently. (The staircase was rebuilt after the original was destroyed by a bomb in WWII). Occasionally (not daily), chargeable guided tours of Somerset House are run, which depart from Seamen’s Hall.
Temporary Events and Exhibitions
The large permanent creative community provides much of the output for the many exhibitions and events (some chargeable, some free) that Somerset House hosts throughout the year in its several exhibition spaces. The Courtauld Gallery also presents special exhibitions.
Peter Doig – an exhibition of the artists’s new and recent works at the Courtauld Gallery (10 Feb – 29 May 2023)
London Original Print Fair – claimed to be London’s longest-running art fair, the 38th edition is at Somerset House from 30 Mar – 2 Apr 2023.
Onsite Restaurants and Cafés
The site boasts two full-scale restaurants, a coffee shop, a café and two bars including the Terrace Bar, adjacent to the river bank (open in summer – access through Seamen’s Hall), plus the Courtauld Gallery’s own cafe-bar, all of them accessible to the public without requiring a gallery/exhibition ticket. There are numerous other eating and drinking options within a few minutes walk along the Strand (turn left out of the main Strand entrance for the best choice).
Other Attractions Close By
St Mary le Strand Church (2 minutes walk)
The first church of St Mary le Strand, dating from the twelfth century or possibly earlier (and then called “Church of the Innocents”), was demolished in 1549 as part of the clearing of space undertaken by Edward Seymour to make room for Somerset House. Its replacement, the current building, did not come for another 175 years when the present building became the first of twelve new churches to be built under Parliament’s New Churches in London and Westminster Act of 1710 to provide for the needs of London’s burgeoning population. The present church was designed by the famous architect James Gibbs who trained in Rome, and the Italian influences are clear to see in its richly decorated interior. The parents of author Charles Dickens were married in the church in 1809. The building is usually open to visitors, free of charge on Mondays to Thursdays from 12 noon to 4pm.
Saint Clement Danes Church (5 minutes walk)
From a 9th century church granted by King Alfred the Great to Danish settlers in London, through an 11th century rebuild under William the Conqueror, to the current 17th century building by Sir Christopher Wren, a church dedicated to St Clement has stood on this site for more than 1,000 years. After it was badly damaged by bombing during WWII, the church went through a major restoration and in 1958 it was designated as the Central Church of the Royal Air Force, now serving as a memorial church to those who gave their lives while serving in the RAF. There are many badges, insignia and artefacts commemorating various aspects of air force history in the building, including several donated by allied air forces from around the world. The church is free of charge to visit and typically open to the public from 10am to around 3pm daily, with a Sunday service at 11am.
History of Somerset House: Royal Palace to Public Arts Venue
Work on the first Somerset House on the current site on the north bank of the River Thames was started at the direction of Edward Seymour, then Lord Protector of England in 1547. Seymour was an English nobleman and military leader who rose to prominence in the reign of Henry VIII after his sister Jane Seymour, married the king. Upon Henry’s death, he was appointed Lord Protector by a “regency council” created under the terms of the king’s will, to govern until Henry’s son, King Edward VI, reached the age of 18. Seymour thus accrued near king-like powers, and perhaps uniquely in English history, bestowed a dukedom on himself, making himself Duke of Somerset. Somerset House was to be his palace. By the time it was finished in 1551 however, the duke had fallen out of favour with the council and, on 22 January 1552 as recorded in the young Edward VI’s journal, “the Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine o’clock in the morning”.
Following the execution, Somerset House passed into the ownership of the crown, and the following year the young Princess Elizabeth moved in, and lived there until 1558, when she was crowned Queen Elizabeth I. The building subsequently served as a home for three further queens of England and during the English Civil War became the headquarters for the Parliamentary Army.
During the 18th century the original Somerset House fell into disrepair, and in 1775 the government of the day, which was keen to construct a new public building for reasons of both national pride and to house a number of government departments, struck a deal to accept Somerset House from George III with a view to redeveloping the site for the nation, in exchange for reimbursing the king for his earlier purchase of Buckingham House – later renamed Buckingham Palace. Demolition was completed the same year, and the architect Sir William Chambers was appointed to design and oversee the construction of Somerset House, a task which was substantially completed over the following twenty-five years, resulting, essentially, in the building as we know it today.