Somerset House is a neoclassical building on the south side of the Strand in London, looking out over the River Thames. It is a Georgian quadrangle, which was designed by Sir William Chambers and opened in 1796 on the Duke of Somerset’s Tudor palace. Throughout history, Somerset House has taken on many roles, including being home to the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Society, and the Society of Antiquaries.
Now, in recent times, it is an artistic space best known for its film screenings, exhibitions and ice rink, so the space’s purpose is similar to those of the past arts and social days.
There were times where the house was more of a royal family abode, though – times long before restaurants in Paddington London served tourists from around the world and people queued for hours for the London Eye. There are also several secrets that a lot of people don’t know about, which include…
1. Secret Gravestones
Together with Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria lived in this splendid residence on the Strand, Somerset House – though, at the time, it was known as Denmark House. From the outside, it shows off its intricate Tudor architectural finishes and is pretty much a replica of how it looked back in 1625 when these two iconic figures in history lived there. However, the inside is no longer the frills and fancy of 1620’s wings of residence, but rather an exhibition space and host to events. It is what is underneath that plays a part in the building’s rich, secretive history.
At the time, the country was protestant, yet the queen insisted on a Roman Catholic chapel. It no longer exists, but under the Edmond J Safra Fountain Court are where Catholic burials took place for the queen’s staff and courtiers who secretly shared her faith. You can explore the court with either a self-guided tour or a private one, before heading back to your room at The Chilworth London Paddington and enjoy some afternoon tea.
2. Hidden Symbolism
In the North Wing, which is fronting the Strand, there are four statues that were built in 1778. They stood as pillars for the four continents that were in known-existence at that point: Africa, Asia, Europe and America. The statue of America is holding a spear, which is a nod towards The American Revolutionary War.
Further secret symbolism can be found on the stairways in the South Wing. The Nelson and Stamp Stairs tell of class tensions of the time, where the upper bannister is intricately designed with beautiful floral patterns and the lower bannisters are just plain bars. This is telling of who would have seen the upper level, whereas the lower level was only used or seen by servants. Walking down the stairs, you notice the change as you reach the point where only the lower class would have ventured.
3. Construction and Eviction
Somerset House initially cost £10,000 to build – a number so low compared to modern prices on the Strand that it hardly seems believable. But when compared to the fact that, at the time, the average labourer who built it would have been earning around 9 shillings a day, you realise the historical-economic scale of such a building. To be built, several homes and churches had to be first confiscated and then demolished, which caused community-wide anger… not that there was much they could do about it!
4. The Original V&A
The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, known locally and to visitors as the V&A is, at its present location, not far from The Chilworth London hotel. However, the intellectual baseline for the museum is rooted in 1837, where Somerset’s House’s School of Design played a similar role at the creation of the government. It is the perfect historical companion to some pampering in The Chilworth Spa in Paddington – there is nothing quite like mixing up some local luxury with some informative exploration.
5. Somerset House Studios
Though many people are not aware, what was previously the Inland Revenue offices have been repurposed and is now the home to Somerset House Studios. Somerset House Studios is made up of a group of innovative artists turning ripples into waves throughout creative society with boldness and active engagement – there are up to 100 of these artists in residence at any one time. They create and experiment in a number of ways, including experimental club nights, discussions and shows.
6. Somerset cameos
There are many films in which Somerset House has featured – however, in cases such as Love Actually, GoldenEye and Bride and Prejudice, Somerset House appeared as itself. However, in the 1999 Tim Burton-directed film Sleepy Hollow, there is a scene at the end of the film where the characters walk down the streets of New York together. The secret catch? This was actually filmed in Somerset House!
At the end of the day, a trip to Somerset House is enriching, informative and educational. And that is just regarding what is included in the tours and what is visible to the eye on walking around the vicinity. If you scratch a little deeper under the surface, there are several other secretive nuggets of things worth knowing. From the war-based symbolism in the North Wing statues to the Catholic gravestones looming under the courtyard and once a sanctuary to those worshipping in secret, there is a wealth of fascinating experiences to be had just a short walk from London’s Trafalgar Square.