Since the 18th Century

Since the 18th century

Splendour or Convenience?

The Somerset House that we see today stands on the site of an earlier Tudor palace that was demolished in 1775.

The demise of the old Somerset House coincided with a move to house many of the government's offices and the principal learned societies under one roof, and led to the site being chosen for a new building to solve this pressing problem.

This approach was a radical departure from the established practice of using separate buildings for different departments of state and was seen as a means to promote greater efficiency among the government bureaucracies.

Sir William Chambers, one of the leading architects of the day and Comptroller in the Office of Works, might have expected to be first choice for the Somerset House commission when it was awarded in 1774.

Instead, he was overlooked in favour of William Robinson, Secretary of the Board of Works, but a man who had recent experience of designing major government buildings.

There was much argument in Parliament as to whether the designs for the new building should favour splendour or economy.

Joseph Baretti, a close friend of Chambers, described Robinson's initial plans as being in a plain manner, "rather with a view to convenience than ornament". However, following a parliamentary debate, Robinson was instructed to revise his concept and produce, "an ornament to the Metropolis and a monument of the taste and elegance of His Majesty's Reign".

Meanwhile, Chambers expressed his displeasure at the choice of architect for such a prestigious project when he wrote that it was, "strange that such an undertaking should be trusted to a Clerk in our office... while the King has six architects in his service ready and able to obey his commands".

The matter of Robinson's ability to produce an appropriate design was unexpectedly resolved by his sudden death in 1775, and the appointment of Chambers as his replacement.

Chambers' Scheme

Chambers, who had lamented the destruction of the old Somerset House and been critical of Robinson's designs, was appointed to design and supervise the construction of 'a great public building... an object of national splendour'.

It had to accommodate the three principal learned societies - the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Society, and the Society of Antiquaries - as well as various government offices. In particular, he had to provide the Navy Board with quarters that would reflect the rising importance of the Navy at a time when Britain was almost constantly at war.

To further complicate his task, the King's Bargemaster was also to be based at Somerset House. This required that there was direct access to the Thames, enabling officers of the Navy Board to travel back and forth to the warehouses and dockyards at Deptford and Greenwich. The new building also had to provide living accommodation for the heads of the various departments housed there, including space for cooks, housekeepers, secretaries and many others.

Chambers solved this problem by treating the offices as a series of town houses arranged in a quadrangular layout, extending across the whole site of the old palace and its gardens and out into the Thames, some six acres in all.

Each department, regardless of size, was allocated a vertical slice of accommodation; six storeys comprising - cellar, basement, ground floor, first floor, attic and garret. By seeking to conceal two storeys below ground and one in the roof, Chambers reduced the visual impact to that of a building only three storeys high, while providing each of the various departments with a large set of rooms and its own separate entrance.

A Great Feat of Engineering

The construction of this huge project was to be phased. The Strand Block to the north was built first, its foundations laid in 1776 and the building generally completed by 1780.

At the same time, piles were driven into the river-bed to form the foundations of the Embankment Building, the front of which was of Aberdeen granite and concealed the massive brick piers supporting the Navy Office block above. This was completed in 1786 and the east and west ranges some two years later.

The steeply sloping site with its poor soil quality had presented Chambers with numerous difficulties to contend with. Although the structure suffered some partial early failures, the subsequent stability of this vast and complex building, foundations rising from the treacherous soil of the river bank, must be regarded as one of his greatest achievements.

Sadly, Chambers did not live to see the completion of Somerset House. He tendered his resignation in March 1795 due to "infirmities incident to old age" and died less than a year later. In the summer of 1795 James Wyatt was appointed to complete the building. After many delays, it was finally declared finished in 1801, even though a part of Chambers' design still remained un-built.

Longer and Higher

In 1775 William Robinson had conservatively estimated that his "plain substantial structure" could be built for £135,700. By comparison, five years later Chambers reported to the House of Commons that the final cost of his building "will certainly not exceed the sum of £250,000" and, extremely optimistically, that it would "require six years and a half to complete the whole design".

As the process of erecting this vast and complex building dragged on, the cost continued to spiral upwards, reaching £306,000 in 1788, £353,000 in 1790, and £462,323 when the account finally closed in 1801, some 25 years after the first foundations had been laid.


The Strand Block contained the entrance vestibule described by Chambers as "a general passage to every part of the whole design", and rooms for the Learned Societies, intended for "the reception of useful learning and polite arts". These were the parts of his design where he considered "specimens of elegance should at least be attempted".

Accordingly, they were afforded a more decorative treatment than the rest of the building, including sculptural decoration by Wilton, Bacon and Carlini and, in the Royal Academy, a library ceiling painted by Joshua Reynolds.

The remaining three sides of the quad were home to various administrative departments. Of these, the Navy Office was given the most prominent position, occupying large parts of the South Wing and having the only elaborate interiors in the office ranges. Although most of the Somerset House interiors were relatively plain, numerous carvings and reliefs decorated the exterior of the building. Their main themes were patriotic - many had a marine motif, celebrating the Naval power and imperial ambitions of Britain at a time when both were growing.

Additional decoration was provided by John Bacon, who made two sculptures of George III, a bust for the Society of Antiquaries, whose patron he was, and a full-length bronze for the Courtyard.

One area where Chambers gave free rein to his imagination and flair for interior design was in the construction of two of the staircases. The Royal Academy Exhibition Room situated at the top of the Strand Building was served by a long and winding stair. Chambers included a series of decorated landings, or "stations of repose" from which spectators, "might find entertainment, to compensate for the labour past, and be encouraged to proceed".

In designing the Navy Staircase (later renamed the Nelson Stair) in the southern part of the building, Chambers had the space to give free rein to his imagination. Here he created a sweeping staircase, soaring dramatically into space over the drop to the ground floor. The Navy Staircase suffered severely from bomb damage in 1940 and was carefully restored by Sir Albert Richardson.

A Matter of Opinion

As with any great public work, there were critics... and eulogists...

Self-styled architectural critic Anthony Pasquin made an unflattering reference to the basement offices when he wrote, "In these damp, black and comfortless recesses, the clerks of the nation grope about like moles, immersed in Tartarean gloom, where they stamp, sign, examine, indite, doze, and swear..."

While an anonymous contributor to the Somerset House Gazette in 1825 defended the building and described Pasquin's satire as "malignant criticism" intended to "...expose to general derision the bad taste of the King, the government, and the country..."

Later, Henri Taine, peering through the autumnal gloom of 1850 at a building adorned with five decades of accumulated urban grime was moved to comment, "A frightful thing this huge palace in the Strand which is called Somerset House. Massive and heavy piece of architecture of which the hollows are inked and the porticos blackened with soot..."

The final words on Chambers' achievement should, we feel, go to this contributor to the Somerset House Gazette, who wrote, "This then is Somerset Place, the work of an architect, who has manifested in its erection, a vast extent of intellect, as a mathematician, as an engineer, as an artist, and as an philosopher... an upright man."

The Eastern Part of the Site

Through the 1820s, a furious debate raged in educational and political circles between those who advocated the teaching of the Protestant religion, those who supported the sensitive issue of Catholic emancipation, and others, who favoured a radical departure and wanted to exclude the teaching of theological subjects altogether.

A committee was formed, which included the Duke of Wellington, then Prime Minister, to raise funds for a new educational foundation that would put the Protestant religion firmly back into the curriculum.

King George IV promised his patronage of what would be known as King's College (London), while the government granted the use of the vacant site to the east of Somerset House on which to build it, with but one condition; that the College should be erected "on a plan which would complete the river front of Somerset House at its eastern extremity in accordance with the original design of Sir William Chambers".

The architect Sir Robert Smirke was selected to design the new college.

A student at the Royal Academy Schools at Somerset House, Smirke later studied architecture in Greece and Italy and already had the design of the British Museum, a magnificent Greek Revival building, to his credit.

Smirke had been appointed Attached Architect to Somerset House in 1815, and his design for the Legacy Duty Office completed the north west corner of the Courtyard in a style that sympathetically reproduced Chambers' existing elevations.

In 1829, Smirke started work on King's College and, with it, the completion of the eastern part of Chambers' river front which had for so long offended "every eye of taste for its incomplete appearance".

Although confronted with similar problems to Chambers before him - the steeply sloping site, unstable ground, river frontage and so on - Smirke ensured that the construction of King's College proceeded apace. The College formally opened in 1831, and by 1835 the whole of the eastern section of the river facade with its Palladian Bridge and six bays to the east were mostly completed.

New Wing

When the access road to the new Waterloo Bridge opened to the west of Somerset House in 1813, it afforded passers-by an unsightly view of the rear elevations of the Admiralty houses that formed the western side of the Courtyard.

For years, this arrangement continued to attract criticism - in 1841 a writer in the Westminster Review described the back of the west wing as a "rude, unsightly surface of brick wall, patched over with windows placed at random".

At the same time, the expansion of the Inland Revenue brought a pressing need for more office space. The government decided to solve both of these problems by building a new wing to Somerset House on the undeveloped westernmost part of the site.

James Pennethorne, who had trained under John Nash, was the architect entrusted with the design of the New Wing in 1849, and with it, the completion of Chambers' great scheme. The New Wing was not, in fact, a new building, but a substantial extension and remodelling of the Admiralty residences.

Spine corridors were cut to join the terrace as one building, new rooms were built facing on to Lancaster Place to provide office space for the Inland Revenue, including a Court of Appeal, and beneath this, an extensive substructure of vaults and basements provided premises for the Stamping Department. A new front elevation, including principal entrance and forecourt, was constructed in Portland stone and closely followed Chambers' architectural style. While, at its southern end, the New Wing terminated behind the river facade leaving Chambers' original design intact.

The completion of the New Wing in 1856 was the last phase of a plan conceived some eighty years earlier and finally allowed Somerset House to be appreciated as a three-dimensional building, rather than as one having facades only onto the Strand and the river.

Seventy-five architects officially congratulated Pennethorne in a letter published on 1st July of that year, they wrote, "Your professional brethren are anxious to congratulate you on the successful completion of your design... a striking architectural feature in the entrance to London by Waterloo Bridge".

Victoria Embankment

By the second half of the nineteenth century, London's roads were becoming increasingly congested and its sewers unable to cope with the needs of a rapidly growing population. As a part of its activities to modernise the infrastructure of the city, the Metropolitan Board of Works undertook to make new roads, construct the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea embankments, and lay a vast, new drainage system.

The Embankment was intended to carry a new road along the edge of the Thames from Westminster to the City of London and, below ground, to accommodate large sewers and a line for the Metropolitan and District Railway. Construction of the Victoria Embankment to the designs of Sir Joseph Bazalgette began in 1864 and was completed in July 1870.

The introduction of the Embankment had the effect of distancing the river from the buildings along its north bank, particularly significant for Somerset House, which had been designed to rise directly from the water. The new embankment truncated the elevation of Chambers' masterpiece; the Aberdeen granite base of the Embankment Building was concealed by the substructure for the road, the two Watergates were demoted to being entrances from the new raised carriageway, and the Great Arch with its two adjacent barge-houses became landlocked.

The dramatic waterfront design of Sir William Chambers' Somerset House had effectively been destroyed a little more than a decade since the building of the New Wing had seen its completion.

Reallocation of Space

By the 1870s, bowing to pressure from government departments, the learned societies had vacated the North Wing of Somerset House and moved to Burlington House, thus releasing more space for office use. By 1900 the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths had taken their place.

In 1873 the Admiralty moved from Somerset House to Spring Gardens. Their space in the West Wing was allocated to the Inland Revenue, and a cast iron bridge was built in 1896, spanning between this and their existing accommodation in the New Wing. The South Wing was shared between the Inland Revenue and the Principal Probate Registry, the vaults in the eastern end being used to store original copies of wills.

The 20th Century

As the needs of the Inland Revenue continued to grow at the end of the 19th century, it expanded into the East Wing releasing space in the South Wing for the Principal Probate Registry. The need for increased storage and public access to the Registry resulted in alterations to the cellar, basement and ground floors of the South Wing during the 1920s, and a substantial reconstruction of the Seamen's Waiting Hall.

In the 1940s, the Inland Revenue was evacuated and the Ministry of Supply occupied Somerset House for the duration of the War. Subsequent bomb damage to the Nelson Staircase, Navy Boardroom and several bays to its east required extensive reconstruction which was carried out under Richardson & Houfe between 1950 and 1952.

After the War, the Inland Revenue, the Principal Probate Registry and the General Register Office occupied the building. During this time, mezzanine storeys were introduced to many of the offices to increase their floor area, while, in the 1970s, original joinery was removed to enable fire precaution works and the upgrading of mechanical services under the direction of the Frizzell Partnership.

In spite of these changes much of the space in Somerset House no longer proved ideal for its users and the North Wing was vacated by the Registrar General in 1970. Having remained empty for some 20 years, this part of the building originally designed by Chambers for "useful learning and polite arts" was occupied by the Courtauld Institute and its galleries. The adaptation was carried out by Green Lloyd and Adams and the reallocation of the building to the arts was seen as a major heritage gain.

Following the vacation of the South Wing and Embankment Building by government departments in the last few years, a comprehensive restoration programme has seen galleries and other cultural spaces introduced here. The Embankment Terrace has been reopened and Chambers' great Courtyard has been transformed from a hidden car park into one of the most vibrant public spaces in the capital.

These changes have been overseen by architects Inskip and Jenkins, under the direction of the Somerset House Trust and with financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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September 2016
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