Splendour or Convenience?
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 government's offices and the principal learned societies under one roof, and led to the site being chosen for a new building to solve this pressing problem.
This approach was a radical departure from the established practice of using separate buildings for different departments of state and was seen as a means to promote greater efficiency among the government bureaucracies.
Sir William Chambers, one of the leading architects of the day and Comptroller in the Office of Works, might have expected to be first choice for the Somerset House commission when it was awarded in 1774.
Instead, he was overlooked in favour of William Robinson, Secretary of the Board of Works, but a man who had recent experience of designing major government buildings.
There was much argument in Parliament as to whether the designs for the new building should favour splendour or economy.
Joseph Baretti, a close friend of Chambers, described Robinson's initial plans as being in a plain manner, "rather with a view to convenience than ornament". However, following a parliamentary debate, Robinson was instructed to revise his concept and produce, "an ornament to the Metropolis and a monument of the taste and elegance of His Majesty's Reign".
Meanwhile, Chambers expressed his displeasure at the choice of architect for such a prestigious project when he wrote that it was, "strange that such an undertaking should be trusted to a Clerk in our office... while the King has six architects in his service ready and able to obey his commands".
The matter of Robinson's ability to produce an appropriate design was unexpectedly resolved by his sudden death in 1775, and the appointment of Chambers as his replacement.
The 20th Century
As the needs of the Inland Revenue continued to grow at the end of the 19th century, it expanded into the East Wing releasing space in the South Wing for the Principal Probate Registry. The need for increased storage and public access to the Registry resulted in alterations to the cellar, basement and ground floors of the South Wing during the 1920s, and a substantial reconstruction of the Seamen's Waiting Hall.
In the 1940s, the Inland Revenue was evacuated and the Ministry of Supply occupied Somerset House for the duration of the War. Subsequent bomb damage to the Nelson Staircase, Navy Boardroom and several bays to its east required extensive reconstruction which was carried out under Richardson & Houfe between 1950 and 1952.
After the War, the Inland Revenue, the Principal Probate Registry and the General Register Office occupied the building. During this time, mezzanine storeys were introduced to many of the offices to increase their floor area, while, in the 1970s, original joinery was removed to enable fire precaution works and the upgrading of mechanical services under the direction of the Frizzell Partnership.
In spite of these changes much of the space in Somerset House no longer proved ideal for its users and the North Wing was vacated by the Registrar General in 1970. Having remained empty for some 20 years, this part of the building originally designed by Chambers for "useful learning and polite arts" was occupied by the Courtauld Institute and its galleries. The adaptation was carried out by Green Lloyd and Adams and the reallocation of the building to the arts was seen as a major heritage gain.
Following the vacation of the South Wing and Embankment Building by government departments in the last few years, a comprehensive restoration programme has seen galleries and other cultural spaces introduced here. The Embankment Terrace has been reopened and Chambers' great Courtyard has been transformed from a hidden car park into one of the most vibrant public spaces in the capital.
These changes have been overseen by architects Inskip and Jenkins, under the direction of the Somerset House Trust and with financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.