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The Tudor Palace at Somerset House

Duncan Wilson looks at the history of the Strand site.

The refurbishment and reopening of the Courtyard and River Terrace at Somerset House, together with the Gilbert Collection and Hermitage Rooms in the South Building, represent one of the great public successes of the year 2000. The public can now visit some of Sir William Chambers’ best neoclassical interiors, such as the Nelson and Stamp Office staircases. However, many of the over one million visitors since May of that year may have been unaware that in crossing the Courtyard they were so close to one of the most important of London’s former royal palaces. This is being marked on September 28th by a conference at Somerset House, organised in association with the Society of Court Studies.

Somerset House takes its name from the palace built on the south side of the Strand by the Duke of Somerset, Edward VI’s Protector, and his steward Sir John Thynne. The first building programme ended with Somerset’s impeachment and execution in 1552. The old palace stood until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, when it was gradually demolished to make way for the present building, Sir William Chambers’ neoclassical ‘palace’. But although palatial in appearance from the outside, the internal arrangements of Chambers’ building are on a much smaller scale. It was built for the learned societies as a ‘home of useful learning and the polite arts’, and for departments of state such as the Navy Board and various revenue-raising departments. Inside, most of the building is configured as a series of offices and meeting rooms leading off corridors and staircases.

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