Somerset House

Somerset House. T. R. Way. Signed and dated 1899. Lithograph. Source: Reliques of Old London, 35.

Commentary by H. B. Wheatley from Reliques of Old London

SOMERSET House, with the Embankment gardens fronting the Adelphi and Waterloo Bridge in the foreground, forms the most picturesque point on the riverside of London. It is seen at its best from Charing Cross Bridge, partly because on this bridge we only notice the beauty of the view and are not disturbed by the obtrusive ugliness of the railway bridge.

There has been a Somerset House here since the reign of Edward VI when the king's uncle, the Protector Somerset, built the first house and made many enemies for himself by his undertaking. His palace, which was afterwards appropriated to queens consort, was pulled down in 1775, and the present building was erected between 1776 and 1786, after the designs of Sir William Chambers. Fortunately Chambers foresaw the eventual embanking of the Thames, and he built it in accordance with this belief, so that it fits in with the present scheme. The building is in the form of a quadrangle with wings. The Strand front is 155 feet long, and the river front 600 feet The inner quadrangle is 319 by 224 feet. Wings have been added to Chambers's building; the east wing, which contains King's College, by Sir R. Smirke in 1828-31; the west wing, devoted to the Inland Revenue Department, by Sir James Pennethorne in 1853.

Somerset House has been intimately associated with the Science, the Art and the Government of the country. Some of the greatest scientific men of the last and present centuries — the Herschels and Watt, Davy and Wollaston, visited the rooms of the Royal Society, and at the Royal Academy, within the period it was located there (1780 and 1838), Reynolds discoursed, and with Wilkie, Flaxman, Chantrey and many other artists exhibited. An old clerk at the Audit Office told the late Peter Cunningham the following interesting incident of the courtyard. “When I first came to this building,” he said, “I was in the habit of seeing for many mornings a thin, spare, naval officer, with only one arm, enter the vestibule at a smart step, and make direct for the Admiralty, over the rough round stones of the quadrangle instead of taking what others generally took, and continue to take, the smooth pavement at the sides. His thin, frail figure shook at every step, and I often wondered why he chose so rough a foot- way; but I ceased to wonder when I heard that the thin, frsul officer was no other than Lord Nelson — who always took the nearest way to the place he wanted to go to.” [34-35]

Related Material

[You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Boston Public Library and the Internet Archive and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one.]


Way, T. R., and H. B. Wheatley. Reliques of Old London upon the Banks of the Thames and in the Subburbs South of the River. London: George Bell and Sons, 1909. [title page] Internet Archive version of a copy in the Boston Public Library. Web. 22 April 2012.

Last modified 22 April 2012