Somerset House
Somerset House
A neo-classical London landmark on the north bank of the River Thames, just off the Strand. The first Somerset House was built from 1547-50 for the Lord Protector Somerset. The Duke's men scavenged stone for the building from the charnel house of St Paul's Carthedral, and the priory church of St John Clerkenwell. The architect of the first Somerset House is a subject of some debate; it may have been Sir John Thynne, or John of Padua.
After Somerset's demise in 1552 the house belonged to the Princess (later queen) Elizabeth. It was from Somerset House that Elizabeth rode to welcome her sister Mary on the latter's accession to the throne. After Elizabeth herself came to the throne she gave part of Somerset House to Edward Seymour, son of the Lord Protector, and kept part of it for her own use, and as grace and favour apartments for crown retainers.

The house was given to Anne of Denmark in 1603, and it was used for theatrical performances, including masques by Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones. The latter had an apartment at Somerset House. Anne of Denmark lay in state at Somerset House (by then renamed Denmark House) after her death in 1619. James I also lay in state at Denmark House after his death in 1625.

Charles I gave the property to Queen Henrietta Maria, and it stayed in royal hands until 1645, when Parliament took control, and the name reverted to Somerset House. Inigo Jones died at Somerset House during the era of Parliamentary control, and in 1658 Oiliver Cromwell lay in state here.

Somerset House was restored in 1660 for Henrietta Maria, but was later used extensively by Catherine of Braganza, Charles II's queen. Sometime during this period Somerset House became the first building in England to use parquet flooring. From 1693 it was used primarily for grace and favour apartments.

In 1775 Somerset House was demolished and a new building erected, designed by William Chambers, the Surveyor General. Chambers created a grand building in neo-classical style, arranged around a central courtyard, with a separate north wing. In 1788 a statue of George III was built to act as a focal point for the courtyard.

The Thames came right up to the foot of the south terrace (this was before the Embankment was built). In 1835 Chambers' design was extended with the addition of an east wing designed by Robert Smirke.

Somerset House has been the home of several of Britain's most prestigious organizations over the years, including the Royal Society, the Society of Antiquities, Royal Navy, and Inland Revenue. But the body most often associated with Somerset House is the General Register of Births, Deaths, and Marriages, which occupied the north wing for over a century until 1973.

Now, Somerset House is a multi-purpose venue, with offices, art galleries, an ice rink, and a museum. The Courtauld Institute of Art moved here in 1990, and the associated Courtauld Gallery eight years later. The Gilbert Collection of silver, gold, and mosaics has been housed in Somerset House since 2000.

Visiting Somerset House is quite an experience; the neo-classical architecture is quite spectacular, and the views from the riverside terrace is superb.