Somerset House, London, was originally a Tudor palace built in 1547 for Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. Somerset was lord protector of England during the first part of Edward VI's reign. Edward had taken the throne at nine years of age in 1547, on the death of his father Henry VIII. Somerset was brother of Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII. One of the reasons for Somerset's unpopularity and eventual downfall was his liking for ambitious and expensive building projects. Somerset House was his biggest scheme.
The original building lasted until 1775 when it was replaced by the building we see today. Architect William Chambers was told to provide a building in which great departments of state, and learned societies could be housed under one roof. The block on the Strand was built first, completed in 1780. This was followed by a huge building next to the Thames, completed around 1786. A further wing was built on the west side, completed in 1856. Originally Somerset House appeared to rise directly out of the Thames, but the Victoria Embankment, built in 1870, now sees Somerset House set back from the river.
The Royal Academy of Arts had its first home here - poet and artist William Blake was one of its first students, enrolling in 1779. The Royal Society, the oldest scientific society in Britain moved in during 1780. Other residents have included the Inland Revenue, the Society of Antiquaries, and the Navy Board. Under administration from Somerset House the Royal Navy became the world's foremost power at sea. This power reached its zenith in 1805 with victory at Trafalgar. A staircase known as the Navy Staircase, or the Nelson Stair, is one of Somerset House's most impressive architectural features.
Today the house is a cultural centre housing the Courthauld Institute of Art, the Gilbert Collection, and the Hermitage Rooms collection. There are also many gift shops, and restaurants. At the heart of today's Somerset House is the Edmond J Safra Fountain Court, a huge central courtyard where fountains and lights are synchronised in a display.
The Courthauld Institute organises a comprehensive learning programme which includes seminars and free talks on topics related to art. Workshops for schools are specifically linked to the National Curriculum. There are also development days for teachers.
Entry is free, but there is a charge to view the art collections.
Somerset House has featured in a number of films including Tomorrow Never Dies, Golden Eye and Sleepy Hollow.
Address: Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA
Opening Times: Please use contact details below.
Directions: Somerset House is off the Strand. The nearest underground station is Temple. Click here for an interactive map centred on Somerset House.
Access: Somerset House, and all the collection are fully accessible to wheelchair users.
telephone: 020 7845 4600
fax: 020 7836 7613
web site: http://www.somerset-house.org.uk/