Google+ London Architecture Blog: Week 13/13 Feature #6 Somerset House,The Strand

Monday, 25 March 2013

Week 13/13 Feature #6 Somerset House,The Strand

Somerset House. Photograph courtesy Sean Batten via Flickr.

Somerset House
Architect: Sir William Chambers
Date of construction: 1776
Location: The Strand, WC2R

Somerset House is a centre for Visual Arts situated on the Strand, Westminster. The building was designed by Sir William Chambers in the neoclassical style and is grade I listed.

The original palace to be built on the site was a palace for Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford who later became the Duke of Somerset and in 1549 he replaced an old Inn of Chancery and houses on the site with a renaissance house. When Seymour was overthrown in the 1550s 'Somerset Place' was used as a Royal Palace until it was demolished in 1775. Parliament passed an act in 1775 to establish public offices inside a new Somerset House and in 1775, William Chambers was appointed to design and build the new Somerset House. after initial plans by William Robinson were rejected. The North wing was completed in 1780 and was based on the design of an earlier riverfront building by Inigo Jones in the 17th century.

Drawing of Old Somerset House in 1722 by Jan kip.

After Chambers' death in 1796, James Wyatt took over and oversaw the completion of the building. It is believed that construction was not completed in full until the 1820s. When it was completed, the River Thames continued up to the southern edge of the building and the arches allowed boats to enter into the the building. 

Ceiling detail in Somerset House. Photograph courtesy Sean Batten via Flickr..

The East wing (used by King's College) was added in 1829-34 to designs by William Chambers, and an additional western wing (known as the 'New Wing') was added in 1851-56. The merger of the Stamp Office and the Tax Office in 1849 created the Inland Revenue and what is now known as HM Revenue and Customs and the expansion of these departments made it the largest occupier of the building. HMRC left the building in 2009, moving to Bush House.

The south wing of Somerset House was damaged during WWII and was repaired in 1952 under the guidance of the architect, Sir Albert Richardson. He rebuilt the Nelson Room and the Nelson stair. During the late twentieth century, the building was established as a centre for visual arts when the Courtauld Institute of Art moved into the building. The Courtauld Gallery contains many significant Renaissance, Baroque, Impressionist and twentieth century paintings by artist's such as Van Gogh, Renoir, Kandinsky, and Cézanne.

Staircase inside the Courtauld Gallery. Photograph courtesy Gary Corbett via Flickr.
War memorial in front of the entrance to Somerset House. Photograph courtesy Sean Batten via Flickr.
The conversion of the car park into a courtyard was designed by Donald Insall & Associates in the 1990s, and a visitor centre, the barge, and a shop and cafe were added. During summer the courtyard space is used for concerts and contains a water fountain display. Additional galleries were opened in 2007 and then later closed, and today the exhibition spaces are used for a varied programme of exhibitions and events.

Ice rink outside Somerset House. Photograph courtesy Sean Batten via Flickr.