Somerset House is a grand mansion that sits on a prime site between the Thames and the Strand, an important thoroughfare that links the Tower of London to the east and the Palace of Whitehall a Westminster to the West. The Somerset House that we see today stands on the site of an earlier Tudor palace that was demolished in 1775.The demise of the old Somerset House coincided with a move to house many of the governments offices and the principal learned societies the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Society, and the Society of Antiquaries under one roof, and led to the site being chosen for a new building to solve this pressing problem.
The construction of this huge project was to be phased. The Strand Block to the north was built first, its foundations laid in 1776 and the building generally completed by 1780. At the same time, piles were driven into the river-bed to form the foundations of the Embankment Building. This was completed in 1786 and the east and west ranges some two years later.
Today, Somerset House is a major arts and cultural centre in the heart of London. During summer months, 55 fountains dance in the courtyard, where you can join in free open air Tai Chi sessions or take in a guided tour discovering hidden spaces and history of this sumptuous mansion, while in winter you can skate on the courtyard ice rink. There are many things to delight and enjoy at Somerset House all year round, so here is a selection of 5 of the best attractions to be found at this majestic hub of creativity…
Since 2009, Somerset House has played host to London Fashion Week. The biannual event, that takes place in February and September, features the very best of the British fashion establishment such as Burberry Prorsum, Matthew Williamson, Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood, who showcase their designs on the Catwalk Show Space amidst the splendour of the Edward J. Safra Fountain Courtyard.
For those to update their portfolio of knowledge on the contemporary arts, Somerset House hold frequent temporary exhibitions in the Embankment Galleries which focus on contemporary fashion, architecture, photography and design. Recent exhibitions have included SHOWstudio: Fashion Revolution, which was a collaboration with renowned fashion photographer Nick Knight, Dior Illustrated: René Gruau and the Line of Beauty, a fashion illustration exhibition, a display highlighting Matthew Williamson’s work in our Courtyard Rooms and 20 Years of Dazed & Confused Magazine in the Terrace Rooms. A programme of free public displays runs alongside major exhibitions in the Terrace and Courtyard Rooms, and further exhibitions will take place in the new East Wing Galleries which opened in Novemeber 2011.
Every August, London’s most scenic open air cinema is the venue to watch a selection of favourites and recent releases, the films are aired in the scenic splendor of The Fountain Court, under the stars on a giant screen with full surround sound in association with Fim4 Summer Screen films. You can aIso immerse yourself in the art and craft of cinema, with a series of Behind the Screen talks that are held before the main screening, which offer a glimpse into the minds of the directors, actors and industry insiders behind the films on show. The films chosen for 2012 include Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and the UK premiere of the adaptation of Jack Kerourac’s classic novel of the beat generation On the Road.
Family Workshops Somerset House
Occurring on a regular basis and blessedly free of charge, the Somerset House Family Workshops give families the opportunity to be creative together while exploring the great mansion’s galleries and rooms. Whether creating a magnificent fresco of myth and legends inspired by the masterful drawings in The Courtauld Gallery or taking part in the Mini Make Believe where children aged 5 and under can go on an exciting adventure with dramatic games, craft activities and storytelling that will take them from the deepest jungles to the furthest reaches of space.
A must for all lovers of music lovers, who would rather not spend a muddy weekend camping at a festival, is the Somerset House Summer Series, when the Fountain Court plays host to exciting and innovative artists in a spectacular location. Previous acts have included Basement Jaxx, Amy Winehouse and Pendulum, Blondie, Ellie Goulding and The Eels, there is something to cater for music aficionados of all persuasions. Gigs held in the 3,000 capacity neo-classical space feel uniquely intimate, while the acoustics reverberate nicely and the crowd atmosphere has known to be rapturous even when it’s raining.
Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA; Tel: +44 (0)20 7845 4600