Somerset House

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Somerset House

Somerset House

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Description

Somerset House is a large Neoclassical complex situated on the south side of the Strand in central London, overlooking the River Thames, just east of Waterloo Bridge. The Georgian era quadrangle was built on the site of a Tudor palace ("Old Somerset House") originally belonging to the Duke of Somerset. The present Somerset House was designed by Sir William Chambers, begun in 1776, and was further extended with Victorian era outer wings to the east and west in 1831 and 1856 respectively. The site of Somerset House stood directly on the River Thames until the Victoria Embankment parkway was built in the late 1860s.

The great Georgian era structure was built to be a grand public building housing various government and public-benefit society offices. Its present tenants are a mixture of various organisations, generally centred around the arts and education.

21st-century redevelopment

The main courtyard, which had been used as a civil-service car park, and the main terrace overlooking the Thames were refurbished and opened to the public, these alterations being overseen by the conservation architects Donald Insall & Associates. Grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund financed the conversion of the South Wing between 1999 and 2003: a visitor centre featuring audio-visual displays on the history of the building, the gilded state barge of the Lord Mayor of the City of London and a shop and café were opened, overlooking the river. The Gilbert Collection of decorative arts, and the Hermitage Rooms, which stage exhibitions of items loaned from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, moved into the same area. The last Hermitage exhibition took place in 2007 and the Gilbert Collection galleries closed in 2008; the collection moved into new galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum in June 2009. Somerset House now puts on a programme of art exhibitions, drawing on various sources.

In stages from 2009 to 2013, HM Revenue and Customs withdrew from the other parts of the building; since March 2013 the Somerset House Trust has had oversight of the entire complex. Its management policy has been to rent out the upper floors at a commercial rate to "creative businesses", while devoting the ground floor to "public realm" activities. The trust receives no public subsidy and relies on income from rent and private hire to fund the upkeep of the estate and relies on ticket sales, merchandising and sponsorship to fund its artistic and cultural programme.

In the winter the central courtyard is home to a popular open-air ice rink, as seen during the opening credits of the 2003 Christmas-themed film Love Actually. At other times, an array of fountains display 55 vertical jets of water rising to random heights.

The courtyard is also used as a concert venue. In July each year the "Summer series" of music events take place, which have included performances from artists such as Lily Allen.

Somerset House is now residence to more than a hundred tenants, comprising a large and diverse collection of creative organisations and artists including Dance Umbrella, 7Wonder, Outset Contemporary Art Fund, Hofesh Shechter Company and the Royal Society of Literature. The largest tenant is King's College London, whose Cultural Institute, Executive Centre and Dickson Poon School of Law occupy the East Wing, which is adjacent to its historic College Building of 1831.

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