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The Strand Block of Somerset House, 1780-1836: Part II

Besides the Royal Academy, write Sonia & Vivian Lipman, the Somerset House building housed the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries.

To enter the apartments of the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries the visitor turned left in the vestibule, under a doorway crowned by a bust of Newton, the first indication that the Royal Society were the dominant of the two co-tenants. Indeed, while the Royal Society were dissatisfied with the amount of their accommodation, the Antiquaries really had only one ‘state’ room, their meeting room on the first floor, and their library on the ground floor.

The entrance hall, staircase (similar to that on the other side for the Royal Academy but subtly smaller) and the first floor ante-room were shared by the Antiquaries with the Royal Society. The Royal Society even obtained the porter’s lodge for the exclusive use of their porter. The Antiquaries had to accommodate their porter in the lobby, and be content with a kitchen, cellar, two vaults and a privy in the basement, and an apartment for their resident secretary in the attic, next to but, of course, separate from the Great Room of the Royal Academy.

How the Society of Antiquaries obtained accommodation at all in Somerset House is an interesting example of eighteenth-century lobbying. The Royal Academy had, after all, some claim to re-accommodation since they had been in the old building, but in spite of the royal patronage of George III, the Antiquaries had no such claim on the public purse, especially since this was not one of the brightest periods of their activities.

A first approach to the Office of Works in 1775 met with the reply from the Surveyor-General that there was no space, but early in 1776 the President, Dean Milles, arranged for the preparation of a petition to their Royal Patron. As a preliminary, he approached Fellows of the Society who were members of the House of Lords. Among them was the Bishop of Worcester, Brownlow North.

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