The Garden Guide

Book: London and Its Environs, 1927
Chapter: 19 From Charing Cross To St Paul's Cathedral

Somerset House

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On the right (south) side of the Strand is the long and stately facade of Somerset House, a quadrangular building in the Palladian style erected by Sir William Chambers in 1777-86. It is, perhaps, the chief example in England of the adaptation of the classical style to secular needs. The archway entrance from the Strand is imposing. The east wing (King's College) was added by Sir R. Smirke in 1829-34, the west wing (towards Wellington St.) by Sir James Pennethorne in 1854. The chief Facade, nearly 600 feet long, fronting the Thames, stands on a terrace 50 feet above the Victoria Embankment. Its basement arcade originally rose straight from the river, and the great central arch was an actual water-gate. The present building occupies the site of a palace begun by the Lord Protector Somerset circa 1547, but left unfinished at his execution in 1552, after which it passed into the hands of the Crown. Elizabeth lived here for a time during the reign of her sister Mary. Later it was occupied by Anne of Denmark (hence known as Denmark House from 1616 to 1649), Henrietta Maria, and Catherine of Braganza, the wives of James I., Charles I., and Charles II. Oliver Cromwell lay in state here in October and November 1658. In the centre of the large enclosed court is a fountain-group by John Bacon, with figures of George III. (holding a Roman rudder), Father Thames, and the British Lion. The appropriate sculptural decoration of the building itself is by G. B. Cipriani. Somerset House is mainly occupied by Government Offices. In the north wing, to the right of the entrance, is the office of the Registrar-General of Births, Deaths, and Marriages, a certificate of any of which may be obtained for 3/7. In the west wing is the Board of Inland Revenue, which deals with stamps, taxes, death duties, and land value duties. In the main building is the Principal Probate Registry. The last, to which the wills from Doctors� Commons and other registries have been transferred, contains a register of wills and testaments going back to 1382. Any will may be seen, or the calendars searched, for a fee of 1/, but wills not less than a hundred years old may be consulted for literary or genealogical purposes without charge (10-5; Saturday 10-11). Among the most interesting wills preserved here are those of Shakespeare (three folio pages, now in an air-tight frame), Milton, Sir Isaac Newton, Van Dyck, Nelson, Wellington, Pitt, Burke, and Dr. Johnson. A painting in the National Portrait Gallery, by Gheeraedts, depicts a Conference at Somerset Home in 1604. The oval Academy occupied quarters at Somerset Home from 1771 till 1837, but the first exhibition here was in 1780. Sir Joshua Reynolds delivered his closing �Discourses� in the great room at the top of the building (1790). The Royal Society also had its quarters here in 1780-1856. In the south-west corner once used as the Navy Office, is the �Nelson Room,� redecorated as in the Chambers period, with three windows looking over the river.