Somerset House - London

Somerset House was designed by George III's architect, Sir William Chambers and was built to provide offices for Civil Service and learned societies who used the courtyard as a car park. Inland Revenues are still housed in part of the building. The Royal Academy of Arts occupied the North Block while the South Building, adjacent to the so-called King's Barge House, housed the Navy and Stamp Offices. The Barge House, now known as the Embankment Building, was originally built out into the river and was a gateway on to what then was London's most important thoroughfare - the River Thames.

The magnificence of its early days eventually faded as the societies moved elsewhere and the Civil Service functions were gradually downgraded and the building of the Victoria Embankment in the 1860s cut the building off completely from the river. In the early 1990's the Heritage Fund enabled the building to be completely restored to its former glory, including the river terrace and the Great Curt, which have been reopened to the public. In 1996, Arthur Gilbert gave his collection to the nation and in 1999 received a knighthood.

Chamber's Great Arch in the Embankment Building - the original Watergate to Somerset House - has been restored and at its base is displayed an 18th Century Navy Commissioners' barge of the kind that would have plied the Thames between Somerset House and Greenwich. This very rare survivor has been loaned by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

The courtyard is an 18th Century neo-classical set piece, perhaps the greatest of its kind in London and now, adding to its grandeur, are some simple, gently-spurting fountains which spurt from 55 jets. The jets change colour and intensity and are choreographed by a computer. They disappear below ground and when they pop up again you can sometimes catch someone's unaware shrills, resulting in a shower bath!! The fountains are programmed to perform four-minute routines every half-hour, and 11-minute shows three times between 10 and 11 am, dancing and shimmering in endlessly varied patterns of light and form. They are the Radio City Rockettes of the kinetic water times world and their shows will imbue the courtyard with constant movement and punctuate musical or visual promenade events. The courtyard also now has open-air summer concerts. The first, by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, will be held on 21 June 2001 (Midsummer's Night) and these are set to become an annual event.

The central courtyard is also turned into an ice-rink around Christmas time for approximately three weeks. There are plans - for Christmas 2002 - for it to continue for six weeks. There is an Ice Rink Cafe selling seasonal refreshments and the courtyard is floodlit at night with special lighting and flaming torches flanking the rink. It can accommodate 200 skaters a day and there are plans to make it a permanent feature of winter in London. A 40ft-high Christmas tree dominates the scene, donated to Somerset House by the Swedish City of Gothenburg, the birthplace of the house's architect, Sir William Chambers. (There is a parallel attraction in New York with the ice rink at the Rockfeller Centre built in 1936, one of the city's most popular winter attractions and when the giant Christmas tree is lit up as many as 400,000 people a day flock to the lavish pedestrian plaza. The site was recently used in the tear-jerking movie Autumn in New York starring Richard Gere and Winona Ryder.)

Simon Jenkins, one-time Editor of the Evening Standard and still a contributor to the paper says about the courtyard, "It was always a place of popular resort. Georgian spectators watched barge races on the river. Artists used the terrace as a vantage point to paint St. Paul's". There is also a restaurant and terrace cafe at Somerset House.

Darlings, when you are in London, you can find me at Christmas time skating with my new American friend, Callie.


Verinha Ottoni



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