Somerset House

A Cultural Experience at Somerset House

Inside this neoclassical building beats the heart of an art gallery with a huge difference as it’s also home to dozens of creative businesses and community initiatives.

Highlights

  • Take one of the free tours (Thursdays and Saturdays) around the house to learn about Tudor skullduggery and the Age of Enlightenment
  • Step into the Hermitage Rooms to find out about Russian royalty and their lives through a variety of jewellery, medals and portraits
  • Lose yourself in the Courtauld Gallery, which contains more than 500 paintings and 26,000 other artworks

What to see and do

Get your skates on!

The Skate at Somerset House season lasts from November to January and over the last 20 years or so has become a must-do for tourists and Londoners alike. The Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court is transformed into a winter wonderland with the arrival of a huge Christmas tree and some serious ice. Beginners, pros and ice-fans in wheelchairs can all skate to their hearts’ content while listening to great music.


Enjoy an alfresco film

Thankfully, you don’t have to sit on ice! The Summer Screen event runs during August and the screenings attract visitors, locals and the occasional famous face. The films range from Oscar-winners to family feelgood favourites and you can enjoy a picnic while you watch.

Visit one of the many exhibitions

There’s always something to see for everyone, with an ever-changing list of events, displays and installations. It’s mostly visual art, with some live performances and there are seemingly no rules, with previous exhibitions featuring Snoopy cartoons and fungus-related artworks.

Get your caffeine on at Hej Café

If you ever need a pick-me-up during your wanderings through Somerset house, this is the place to go. The café gets its beans from a roastery that’s just minutes away and even avowed coffee snobs rate its offerings highly. There are some good pastries to be had, too.

Did you know? (4 Interesting Facts)

  1. When Queen Henrietta Maria, King Charles I’s wife, moved into Somerset House (then known as Denmark House) in 1625, she had a Roman Catholic chapel built in what’s now the Courtauld Gallery. She also insisted on discreet Catholic burials for staff and servants who shared her faith and these graves are underneath the main courtyard.
  2. Before work on the Victoria Embankment started in 1865, boats could get into Somerset House straight from the Thames through what’s known as the Great Arch. The Great Arch Hall, as it’s known now, has a basement which still houses a royal barge.
  3. Somerset House (Denmark House at that time) narrowly escaped the Great Fire of London in 1666, as the flames stopped short of its structure. It was badly damaged during The Blitz, however, when a bomb hit the Navy Staircase in the South Wing in 1940.
  4. Somerset House has proved popular with filmmakers and has acted as “body double” for Buckingham Palace in King Ralph (1991), St Petersburg Square in Goldeneye (1995) and as a turn-of-century New York street in Sleepy Hollow (1999).

History

  • 1547: Edward Seymour, Lord Protector and Duke of Somerset, begins work on his riverside palace. He doesn’t live to see it completed, however, as he’s executed for treason in 1552 and ownership passes to the Crown.
  • 1553: A 20-year-old Princess Elizabeth moves in and then moves out in 1558 when she’s crowned as Queen Elizabeth I.
  • 1603: Anne of Denmark (James I’s wife) moves into Somerset House and it becomes Denmark House in her honour.
  • 1685: King Charles II dies and his wife Catherine of Braganza moves into Denmark House. She leaves the palace in 1693 and was the last royal to live there.
  • 1775: A dilapidated Somerset house is demolished and architect William Chambers builds a new one; it’s completed in 1801 at a (huge at the time) cost of £462,323.
  • 1849: The Stamp Office, the Board of Taxes and the Board of Excise merge to form the Inland Revenue, which goes on to stay at Somerset House (as HMRC) until 2011. The Inland Revenue moved out in 1940 to make way for the wartime Ministry of Supply.
  • 1989: The Courtauld Institute of Art moves into the palace’s North Wing.
  • 2000: The River Terrace is opened to the public for the first time in more than 100 years, followed by the Hermitage Rooms. In December of 2000, the first temporary ice rink is created.
  • 2009: London Fashion Week is held at Somerset House for the first time.

Facilities and accessibility

All areas of Somerset House are accessible by particular routes. The palace has a number of manual wheelchairs that visitors can use for their visits and mobility scooters are also welcome. Call 02078454600 ahead of your visit to book a manual wheelchair.

Guide and assistance dogs are welcome throughout the palace and its grounds, with all other dogs being welcome on the River Terrace and the Edmond J. Safra Fountain Court during regular opening hours.

Baby-changing facilities are located on the ground floors of the New Wing and the East Wing, on the ground floor, and also on the Victoria Embankment levels of the South Wing. Please note that there are no cloakrooms or luggage storage facilities at Somerset House.

Accessible toilets are available in the New Wing, the South Wing Strand level, the South Wing Embankment level and in the East Wing through the Fernandez and Wells entrance.

Photography (for personal use) is permitted throughout most of the palace apart from the King’s Barge House, although the use of tripods is prohibited.

Large-print guides to exhibitions are available at the entrance to all exhibitions, simply ask a member of staff or a volunteer.