We joined a tour of Somerset House in central London recently. Here’s how it went. Somerset House was built by the Duke of Somerset and protector to the young Edward 6th in the later 1500’s – on land occupying a Tudor palace. Subsequently used by the Danish Queen of James 1st but then sadly burned down to be replaced by today’s glorious neoclassical building from the 1770’s. Our guide was enthusiastic, engaging and fun.
Our guide started by gathering us altogether with a big shout out, ‘are you all ready?’ – It was a very nice welcoming touch that instantly warmed us to him. Then he followed with ‘can you hear me’ – allaying any fears anyone may have had regarding be able to hear. This was a guide who took control from the offset in a friendly way!
He explained that the building we were looking was built in 1776 by the architect William Chambers. It was originally the tax office in the early 1800’s – and we all joined him with a light-hearted ‘boo’. We moved on a little and he described today’s building and pointed out what was the Navy Board in the south west corner, the Stamp Office (where all publications were authorised) and where wills and the register of births and deaths was sited. He did a great job of explaining a quite complicated site and was able to relate all the buildings to their modern day equivalents – so putting things in context for us. In-fact he told us the Inland Revenue were still on the site up to 2011 – so very much bridging the past and modern day.
But it wasn’t all about taxation and control. He made sure to bring in the fact this was the original site of the Royal Society (Science) that’s now moved to Carlton House Terrace and been replaced by the Courtauld institute. We all cheered on the arts!
He then spoke more about the past and helped us imagine that the courtyard was originally a very large lawn and towards the river a Renaissance Palace and catholic chapel.
The guide announced ‘we’re off to see the King’. That was a fun forward link to the statue of King George 3rd at the north end of the courtyard. He gave a very funny overview of King George 3rd – the king who lost the American colonies, went mad, spent 60 years on throne – a good and popular king, expert on the flute and harpsichord – and even studied architecture under William Chambers! The King dressed as a farmer to learn agriculture, so called Farmer George. William Chambers and Joshua Reynolds suggested he ought to fund a Royal Academy of Arts – which he did and would visit and use his pea-shooter on the models.
I liked how the guide explained the King’s statue (by John Bacon) – King George represented as a helmsman, with and Old Father Thames, steering Britain during this turbulent time of the American War of Independence. The guide was full of stories and regaled us about the King having 15 children with Charlotte (who never learned any English). We felt very fortunate to visit the next stop and see the Miles stairway, only installed in 2014 – a great engineering and artistic triumph.
It was also nice that He related the site to its use in films, in particular; St Petersburg in Golden Eye and ‘The Duchess’. And also to Charles Dickens’ father who worked in the Navy Board (Pay Office).
Throughout the tour, the guide injected humorous and fun historical anecdotes; like the tax on wig powder, or having to keep chickens and pigs at home to eat your waste!
A great free tour of a historic London sight. And until the 14th January the courtyard is turned into an ice rink for festive skating! Check the website for details: https://www.somersethouse.org.uk/