Somerset House was built between 1776 and 1786 on the site of the Duke of Somerset’s Tudor Palace.
The Duke rose to a position of considerable power under Edward VI, but when he was tried for treason in 1552 the mansion passed to the Crown.
The building then became a base for members of the Royal Family, which Samuel Pepys describes at length in his diaries. Both James I and Charles Imade major improvements, and it was refurbished by Christopher Wren in 1685. Unfortunately, it soon fell out of royal favour, and was demolished in 1775.
The Somerset House that we see today was built by William Chambers in 1776. It was originally just one of many 18th-century mansions that lined The Strand from end to end – the Victoria Embankment hadn’t yet been built, so the garden stretched all the way down to the bank – but with the march of concrete progress and the bombs of World War II, it found itself the last one standing.
Somerset House has had many uses during its lifetime, finding itself home to the Navy, the Exchequer, the Royal Society, and Royal Academy of Arts.
More recently, it has found itself the depository of the nation’s vast collection of birth, death and marriage certificates. When these moved away in 1997 the House was treated to a major refurbishment. The two wings were turned over to three world class art displays, and the car-park in the courtyard was installed with 55 water fountains.
The courtyard now boasts concerts and classical recitals in the summer months, and an outdoor ice-rink is shipped in during the winter.
The Courtauld Gallery is perhaps the most famous display in Somerset House, with works by Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin and Monet. The stand-out pieces are Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear, and Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère.
Pieces from the Early Renaissance period are on the first floor, and the Early/Post Impressionists can be found one floor above. If you are a fan of Rubens, then head for Gallery 5 – it’s devoted entirely to him.
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