New Somerset House (the current house) from the Thames. From a hand-colored 1842 French engraving.
Courtyard of Old Somerset House from a circa 1880 illustration
Cabinet on stand, one of a pair made for Henrietta Maria for use at Old Somerset House. English, 1660-69. In the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
The former Inland Revenue entrance
The pediment of the former Inland Revenue entrance, with Britannia reigning from the rooftop.
The Embankment facade from a circa 1912 postcard
The Strand entrance at night
The Massachusetts State House, Boston, from a circa 1920 postcard. This state capitol building was modeled on Chambers's Somerset House.
The Massachusetts State House in 2015
Earlier Houses: An earlier Tudor house, Old Somerset House, built in 1547 for Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset (Lord Protector Somerset), was demolished in 1776 to make way for William Chambers's current building.
House & Family History: The first Somerset House was a courtyard house in the Tudor style, built for the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. It was completed in 1553 and cost £10,000 to build (approximately £43 million in 2016 inflation-adjusted values using the labour value commodity index). The architect is unknown, though there is some evidence that it may have been designed by John of Padua, who was responsible for Caius College, Cambridge, or possibly John Thynne, who was employed by the Duke of Somerset on other works. After the execution of the Duke of Somerset the house became crown property and was occupied by Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth I) until her accession to the throne in 1558. After the death of Elizabeth in 1603 and the accession of James I, Somerset House was given to the king's wife, Anne of Denmark and Norway. The new queen took up residence and promptly renamed the palace Denmark House. Anne of Denmark entertained on a lavish scale and during her residence Somerset House was one of the centers of English society. The queen encouraged the development of the English masque and employed Inigo Jones to design sets and Ben Jonson to write for a series of extravagant productions mounted at Somerset House. In August 1604 Somerset House was the setting for the conference and subsequent peace treaty that brought about the end of almost 20 years of war between England, Spain, and the Netherlands. In 1609 Anne of Denmark started a major reconstruction of Somerset House, much of it to the designs of Inigo Jones, that cost over £34,000 (approximately £102 million in 2016 values). During the Civil War Somerset House was used as the headquarters of General Fairfax, commander of the Parliamentary army. When Parliament ordered the sale of the royal treasures to benefit the army, much of the Royal Collection was brought together at Somerset House, where it was sold in 1649. In 1658 the lord protector, Oliver Cromwell, died; his body lay in state for public viewing for weeks at Somerset House. The widow of Charles II, Queen Catherine of Braganza, took up residence at Somerset House following the death of her husband; she engaged Christopher Wren to oversee a major redecoration of the house in 1685. During most of the early 18th century Somerset House was used for grace and favour apartments. During this time it was also the site of masked balls, to which anybody who could afford a ticket could attend. The house was also used by the Duchy of Cornwall, who had their offices here. Court officials were also put up in Somerset House and the state apartments were occupied by foreign embassies and visiting dignitaries. In 1722 the Horse Guards took over the stables, and, by 1756, a battalion of Foot Guards were housed in the grand house. These uses led to a deterioration of the palace and it fell into decay. In 1718 the great architect John Vanbrugh observed that Somerset House was the "most out of repair" of all the royal palaces and was no longer able to keep out the weather. This neglect led to the inevitable decision to demolish the house. George III was convinced to give the site over to a building that would hold public offices, on the condition that Buckingham House would take the place of Somerset House as the official dower house of the queen. In 1775 demolition began and continued in stages, as William Chambers's grand new Somerset House was constructed around the old house. When the new Somerset House was completed, the Royal Academy, which had been one of the last occupants of Old Somerset House, became one of the first occupants of the new building—a bridge from the old to the new. As well as the Royal Academy, and the Government Art School, Somerset House was also designed to house the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. These, and the Geological Society, moved to Burlington House in Piccadilly in the early 19th century. Today the east wing forms part of King's College London. The Inland Revenue occupied the east, west, and new wings until early 2009, when the government department moved across the street to Bush House. In 2004 it was proposed that the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom be housed in the new wing, but, in the end, the Middlesex Guildhall was used instead. The Massachusetts State House in Boston, the first domed government building in America, was partially modeled by its architect, Charles Bulfinch, on Chambers's Somerset House (see "Images" section).
Collections: During the Civil War the earlier Tudor house (then called Denmark House) was used as the headquarters of General Fairfax, commander of the Parliamentary army. When Parliament ordered the sale of the royal treasures to benefit the army, much of the Royal Collection was brought together at Somerset House, where it was sold in 1649. The sale of the tapestries and paintings of the Royal Collection documents one of the most important private art collections ever assembled (primarily due to the patronage and erudition of Charles I). Over 1,700 pictures, including works by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Correggio, Titian, Tintoretto, van Dyck, and Holbein were sold. A cabinet on stand, one of a pair made between 1660 and 1669 for Henrietta Maria's use in Old Somerset House, is today in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (see "Images" section).
Architect: Robert SmirkeDate: 1829-35
Architect: Inigo JonesDate: 1609
Architect: Christopher WrenDate: 1685
Architect: William Oldham ChambersDate: 1776-96
House Listed: Grade I
Park Listed: No Park
Past Seat / Home of: SEATED AT EARLIER HOUSE: Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, 1st Earl of Hertford, and 1st Viscount Beauchamp, 1547-52. Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I), until 1558. Queen Anne of Denmark, 1603-19. Queen Catherine of Braganza, 1685-1705.
Current Ownership Type: Government
Primary Current Ownership Use: Visitor Attraction
Ownership Details: Owned by HM Government and let on a long-term lease to the Somerset House Trust, which lets space to a vareity of organizations.