7 Secrets Of Somerset House

By Daan Deol Last edited 12 months ago
7 Secrets Of Somerset House

Named for Edward Seymour, Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset, construction of Somerset House began in 1547. The current incarnation dates back to 1776. Behind its exhibitions, film screenings and famous ice rink lie these lesser-known facts...

Photo: Andrea Pucci

1. What lies beneath

After Queen Henrietta Maria took up residence in Somerset House with Charles I in 1625, the house was redecorated in her honour. She insisted on a Roman Catholic chapel, even though the country was heavily protestant. In addition, the queen asked for permission to carry out catholic burials for her staff who secretly shared her faith. These gravestones and tombs remain beneath the Edmond J Safra Fountain Court today.

A gravestone in Somerset House's Deadhouse © Marco Beck Pecozz

2. The four corners of the world

The four statues on Somerset House's North Wing were constructed in 1778, and represent the known continents of the time: Asia, Africa, Europe and America. Why does the statue of America bear a spear? It's a hint at the war that was raging between Britain and America.

3. Stairways to heaven

The Stamp Staircase at Somerset House. Photo: Doug

Among Somerset House's most beautiful features are the Nelson and Stamp Stairs in the South Wing. The Stamp Stair is named for the stamping of newspapers that once occurred here, and tells a tale of class. The upper level's banister is pretty, with floral designs; the lower level banister switches to mundane bars. Why? While the upper echelons of the stairs were seen by all, the lower would only have been used by servants.

The Nelson Stair is a replica of the original, which was destroyed during the Blitz.

The Nelson Stair at Somerset House. Photo: Sam Codrington

4. The V&A... before it was the V&A

The V&A was known by many names before it became the Victoria and Albert Museum. But its intellectual roots lie in 1837, when a School of Design was established by the government at Somerset House.

5. A riverside home

Before the construction of Victoria Embankment began in 1865, boats were able to access Somerset House directly from the Thames through the Great arch. In the basement below Somerset House's Great Arch Hall lies the King's Barge House. It still houses a royal barge:

The King's Barge in the Old Palace at Somerset House Photo: Somerset House

6. Rifles and art

The former Inland Revenue offices — which included a rifle range — now houses the Somerset House Studios, a community of artists, makers and thinkers. Residents hold experimental club nights, performances and panels on their work. It's nice to think that while people used to practise destroying things down here, they now work at creating things.

LoneLady in the rifle range. Photo: Dan Wilton

7. Hollywood in London

At the end of the 1999 film Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane returns to the New York with Katrina van Tassle and Young Masbeth, and they walk down the street together. Except it's not New York — the scene was filmed at Somerset House. Other films shot here include Love Actually, GoldenEye and Bride and Prejudice.

Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999). Photo: Paramount Pictures

Last Updated 22 December 2016