Somerset House & Courtauld Gallery, London
Somerset House is a preeminent art center and an imposing Neoclassical architectural complex in central London. It is a very popular venue for exhibitions of contemporary art, fashion shows, and special events all year round.
The palace also houses the Courtauld Gallery art museum (currently closed for renovation). In winter, a popular ice rink is installed in the estate’s entrance courtyard.
History and architecture
Somerset House is today a large Neoclassical style palace, overlooking the River Thames near the Waterloo Bridge to the south and the Strand to the north.
The palace was originally built by Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, in 1547 as his London residence. After the duke was executed for felony in 1552, the property passed to the Crown of England; the young Queen Elisabeth I, Anne of Denmark, Queen consort of Scotland, and Catherine of Braganza, Queen consort of England, all lived in the estate.
The palace was completely rebuilt in neoclassical style between 1775 and 1801, after a design by architect William Chambers.
In 1989, the Courtauld Gallery moved into the North Wing of the Somerset House. In 2000, most of the complex was converted into a public center aimed to accommodate cultural events, art exhibitions, and fashion shows.
Somerset House, London, exterior view from the main courtyard. Photo Bob Broglia.
Program of events and activities
The Somerset House cultural program is focused on various forms of contemporary art and creativity, including visual arts, cinema, music, and design.
In the last years, the center hosted exhibitions and site-specific installations of artists such as Ai Weiwei, Marc Quinn, Michael Pinsky, Henri Cartier-Bresson, PJ Harvey, Orhan Pamuk, and Björk, and is also particularly known for its exhibitions of fashion design and photography.
The palace is also one of the main venues of the London Design Festival.
With over 3 million visitors in 2018, Somerset House is the most popular cultural center in the United Kingdom.
The center, which is fully accessible to physically impaired people, also contains four cafes and a restaurant.
Somerset House, view of the sculptural installation Zodiac Heads by Ai Weiwei, 2011. Photo Carron Brown.
Somerset House; previously known as Navy Staircase, the Nelson Stair was designed by Sir William Chambers in the late 18th century and rebuilt in 1950 after being badly damaged during World War Two. Photo Nick Garrod.
Founded in 1932, the Courtauld Gallery is a world-famous museum of art housed in Somerset House’s North Wing. The museum’s collection comprises paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.
The Courtauld Gallery is particularly renowned for its collection of French Impressionist paintings, though it also has notable works by Italian Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age artists.
Masterpieces in the collection include world-famous works by Fra Angelico, Lucas Cranach, Botticelli, Tintoretto, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Antony Van Dick, Pieter Paul Rubens, Tiepolo, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Amedeo Modigliani, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, and Henri Matisse, among others.
Courtauld Gallery, room with French impressionist paintings including “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” by Édouard Manet, 1882. Photo Graeme Churchard.
Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889, oil on canvas, Courtauld Gallery London. Photo by Roger.
Cover image, the main courtyard of Somerset House with the installation Pollution Pods by Michael Pinsky, 2018. Photo Michael Pinsky.
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