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Somerset House Reopens in London

A Vast and Noble Pile

Aerial view of Somerset House, London

Aerial View of Somerset House along the Thames in London from its official guidebook

By Michele Leight

LONDON, October 2, 2000 - In the midst of Britain’s numerous wonderful Millennium projects, it is heartening to witness London’s own commitment to the re-instatement and refurbishment of a building rich in the nation's history and steeped in service to its countrymen for hundreds of years.

Somerset House from the river, Dayes watercolor

Somerset House from the Thames with St. Paul's at right, watercolor, circa 1790, by Edward Dayes

Somerset House, designed by Sir William Chambers in 1776, with grand entrances on the Embankment and the Strand, has risen out of the ashes of decay to be re-invented as a vital cultural complex with a spectacular 18th Century Courtyard and a memorable River Terrace on the Thames, not far from the much mentioned power-station conversion – Tate Modern – on the opposite bank. (See The City Review article.)

Somerset House courtyard looking to The Strand

Great courtyard recently opened at Somerset House

Photo by Michele Leight

Somerset House is immense, and it helps to visualize it as a giant square around a central courtyard, with The Gilbert Collection, the Nelson Stairs, restaurants and River Terrace in the South building on the river, and the world-renowned Courtauld Gallery and the Courtauld Institute of Art to the North, which can be entered separately at the Strand entrance.

Somerset House courtyard looking to embankment

Somerset House recently opened courtyard looking to the Thames embankment

Photo by Michele Leight

This gorgeous Palladian building, which is Chambers salute to the great architect Inigo Jones, was once occupied by the Royal Academy of Art, the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries – the first "societies" of their kind anywhere in the world.

As a reminder of Somerset House’s services to the public in the past, when it housed (among several other government offices) the administrative offices of the Navy Board and Excise Office (taxes), the Headquarters of the Inland Revenue still occupy the East and West wings (which form the rest of the giant "square"). This combination of beauty and practicality make Somerset House utterly fascinating to the visitor. Looking out upon Chambers Courtyard on a flawless August afternoon, clouds sculpted against a piercing cerulean sky, it was unthinkable that this glorious hidden courtyard was till recently the car park for the Inland Revenue! Thank heaven someone saw the light.

When Henry VIII died in 1547, his son Edward VI, by his third wife Jane Seymour (he had eight wives), was still under-age. Edward VI’s ambitious uncle, Edward Seymour, took charge of the situation, including possession of Henry VIII’s will. He had himself created Lord Protector (of the boy-king and the Realm) and Duke of Somerset. In addition, he desired a palace more fitting to his new position, and chose to build one on a site given to him by Henry VIII in 1539 as a reward for successfully fortifying the French towns of Calais and Guisnes. The impressive site lay between the River Thames and the Strand – an important road linking the Tower of London to the East, and the Palace of Whitehall and Westminster to the West.

Although the identity of the architect is not known, a manuscript at Caius College, (pronounced Keys), Cambridge, refers to a portrait of John of Padua "who built the college (Caius) and Somerset House, on the old front of which next the Strand were some Doric columns like those at Caius College." It is also possible that John Thynne, employed by Somerset, designed the palace.

Whoever designed it, contemporary renderings of the old palace, built between 1547 and 1552, confirm that it was an innovative departure from the old Gothic style of architecture, and possibly the first building of the English Renaissance (as the 1750 rendering of an anonymous artist shows in the Somerset House Catalog, page 29, price five pounds). Influential architectural ideas at the time lay in the classical style of Rome and Greece, using a combination of Doric and Ionic pillars, and illustrations of the building show the influence of contemporary French and Italian ideas on decoration.

The past of Edward the Protector past caught up with him, and by 1549 there was dissension amongst members of the ruling Privy Council, led by the Earl of Warwick, eventually leading to Somerset’s arrest and imprisonment in the Tower of London. Public opinion had turned against him for many reasons, including his "demolition activities" on the site of his new palace, which had brought an untimely end to a number of churches, chapels and cloisters. The indictment included seizing church lands and stated that the Duke had "caused a church near Strand Bridge and two Bishops houses to be pulled down to make a seat for his new building called Somerset House, in digging the foundations whereof the bones of many who had been buried there were dug up and carried into the fields… the Duke would have a hard time getting away with that in our day, let alone on land belonging to powerful bishops in an age when the Church and State were on an equal footing and a strong influence on the general public.

England had recently been transformed by Act of Parliament and Henry VIII’s desire for a male heir to a Protestant nation, with bitter rivalries still evident between Protestants and the ousted Catholics. The "politicking," violence and intrigue surrounding the Duke of Somerset was a sign of the times, with the nobility of both religions seeking to "plant" their man or woman on the throne. The Duke of Somerset was lucky enough to be released the first time, to regain his seat on the Privy Council and reclaim his estates, but two years later he was not so fortunate when his enemies arrested him and tried him for treason. His nephew Edward VI’s diary entry for January 22nd, 1552, cryptically states "…the Duke of Somerset had his head cut off on Tower Hill between 8 and 9 o’clock in the morning." That famous mound on Tower Hill now populated by pigeons and regal Beefeaters saw many heads roll through the centuries, never more so than in Henry VIII’s reign – the most famous being that of Sir Thomas More, who refused to support his divorce of Katherine of Aragon, a Catholic.

The palace was appropriated by the Crown, and given to Princess Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth I (Anne Boelyn, wife to Henry VIII and beheaded by him, was her mother). From then on Somerset House served as the dower house of successive queens for most of the 17th Century. During the 18th Century it was by turns a temporary residence for royals, a "grace and favor" residence for those who served the Crown, a hotel for visiting ambassadors – and in the reign of Anne of Denmark, the scene of many extravagant masquerades.

Numerous engravings, prints, drawings and paintings of Old, and new, Somerset House exist, giving an accurate idea of how it metamorphosed over the centuries, always taking along with it something architecturally or decoratively that went before. Antonio Canaletto’s atmospheric "Old Somerset House seen from the Thames," (Private Collection), painted around 1750, portrays the noble house fronted by a lawn leading to the river, with a fountain, gardens and trees. The arcaded river gallery of the south front, believed to have been designed by Inigo Jones, was to inspire the design for the façade of Chambers new Strand entrance, which leads to the gorgeous Vestibule, or entrance to the Courtauld Gallery to the right and the Courtauld Institute, world famous for its art history courses, to the left. The Courtauld - a major museum with a world-class collection is an absolute "must-see" for any devotee of art - has occupied the Somerset House premises since 1990.

Entrance to Courtauld Gallery

Frontispiece of Somerset House book showing entrance to Courtauld Gallery

If only paintings relevant to a site, such as this one by Canaletto, the great Venetian "waterscapist," could be loaned to the institutions they depict - The Gilbert Collection, located by the Great Arch of Chambers new Somerset House at the Embankment entrance, would be the obvious choice. (Hint, hint…) A hand-colored engraving by Robert Havell (from the Thomas Ross Collection), now in the Gilbert Collection, shows the 18th Century Somerset House with the waters of the Thames lapping at its southern façade and the Great Arch – with no land or greenery or "potted plants" in sight, as was Chambers intention. Edward Daye's "Somerset House from the river," fittingly in the Courtauld Institute Galleries, shows the new building rising like a neo-classical colossus directly out of the water, boats pitted against a choppy Thames, with St. Paul’s smudged on the horizon (illustrated).

By the 1770s, old Somerset House had begun to fall apart, and in 1774 the Board of Works reported that large parts of the palace were in a state of collapse. King George III agreed to its complete demolition, with plans for a new building to house a number of government offices and learned societies. The decision to concentrate several government offices in the proposed new Somerset House (interesting that no one sought to change the name, considering the circumstances) was a noticeable departure from the established British convention at that time of using separate buildings for different departments of state. The new thinking encompassed the growing realization that the concentration of public offices in a single building would promote efficiency.

Sir William Chambers was a leading architect of his day and Comptroller of the "Office of Works." He was ambitious, wanted to make his mark, and eagerly hoped for the commission to design the new Somerset House. There had been a desire to build a new classical palace in London ever since the destruction of Whitehall Palace by fire in 1698. The legendary Inigo Jones had published his ideas for a palace for Charles I in 1727, which had spurred on public enthusiasm. Sadly, Charles I was beheaded and neither of the succeeding King Georges had shown any interest in a metropolitan seat of power.

More tangible was the idea of re-building the medieval Palace of Westminster (honestly, these builders), leading William Kent to prepare a series of designs in the 1730s in the grand Palladian style of the times. This scheme was to receive approval in 1739, but Sir Robert Walpole's administration fell, so it was left to two government buildings in Whitehall to set the new standard for public architecture in mid-Georgian London.

Though only a small fragment of William Kent’s full scheme was built, it remains, to this day, a mecca for enraptured tourists garlanded with cameras and lovers of architecture; the Treasury Building, facing Horse Guards Parade (scene of the Queens birthday extravaganzas and the daily Changing of the Guard)) established rusticated Portland stonework as the proper "dress" for such buildings. Fifteen years later, the Horse Guards Building followed suit and was rebuilt by Kent, forming the new War Office.

Britain’s emergence as a formidable maritime power peaked in the 18th Century, pointing in the direction of establishing a new government department that would reflect its importance – the Navy Office. The new Somerset House would be given the same treatment as the other prestigious "offices," and was built primarily as accommodation for the navy office and the various support services it provided for seamen and their families – hence names like "Sick and Hurt Office," "Victualling Office," "Seamen’s Waiting Hall" and so on. It was optimistically envisaged as a "plain building" and estimated at half the cost of the Horse Guards – thirty thousand pounds!

William Robinson, Chambers subordinate and Secretary of the "Board of Works" initially received the commission, causing Chambers to write bitterly that it was "strange that such an undertaking should be trusted to a Clerk in our office; ill-qualified as it appears by what he has done at the Excise and the Fleet (referring to the Excise Office and Horse Guards); while the King has six architects in his service ready and able to obey his commands. Methinks it should be otherwise in the reign of a Vertuoso Prince…"

Fate determined it would be "otherwise" with the sudden death of Robinson in October 1775. Within the month, at George III’s express desire, Sir William Chambers was appointed architect of the new Somerset House. They were not strangers to one another; Chambers had been employed to teach architectural drawing to George III when he was the young Prince of Wales, and had obviously made a favorable impression.

William Chambers was born in Sweden in 1726 of British parents, and was educated in England. When he was 16 he visited China, the local architecture stimulating his interest enough to devote himself to architecture full time. He traveled and studied in France and Italy and sufficiently impressed Augusta, Princess Dowager of Wales that she engaged him to decorate her villa at Kew. For those who have seen the wonderful Chinese Pagoda at Kew Gardens, it might come as a surprise to learn that it was designed by Chambers, along with the famous Orangerie in this great horticultural paradise; many British adventurers, explorers and botanists have brought their exotic finds and specimens to Kew Gardens, where they have flourished ever since. If there is one thing the British love as much as animals, it is their flora and fauna.

Chambers brief was twofold: the new Somerset House was to accommodate the three principal learned societies of the day – the Royal Academy of Art, the Royal Society (for Science) and the Society of Antiquaries – "intended for the reception of useful learning and the polite arts." One wonders what those "polite" academicians would make of modern art’s "enfant terrible," Damien Hirst, or the cloning activities of our contemporary scientists. Less esoteric but equally important were the various government offices serving the Navy and the public.

As an aside, the King’s Bargemaster was to be housed at Somerset House, with access for state barges at all times. Who can forget Robert Shaw as Henry VIII in "A Man For All Seasons?" His famous visit to his friend, Thomas More, had to be made by Royal barge, for Thomas lived up-river, in what would now be Chelsea. It was barges almost as magnificent as that one - oars raised high as Henry (Robert Shaw) made an impromptu landing in the mud – with a demonic grin - before his long-suffering attendants could lay the red carpet down. Chambers had to accommodate royal and government barges, and access had to be swift and direct for the officers of the Navy Board. The Navy Commissioners Barge, on loan from the National Maritime Museum, is displayed at Somerset House in the King's Barge House (Embankment Entrance).

To complicate matters further, the new building had to contain both the offices and the living quarters of the heads of the different departments; these were the days when "households" entailed cooks quarters, housekeepers and secretaries, porters and "bag bearers"(officers did not carry their own briefcases) and storage for coal and candles. Chambers solved this by creating, in essence, a series of linked, six story town houses – or "slices"- per department, arranged around a central courtyard. The two basement floors and one camouflaged in the roof, gave the terraces the outward appearance of only three stories. Pretty ingenious without a TI83+ calculator – just fairly primitive T squares, compasses and protractors.

The new building extended across the entire "old" Somerset House site and its gardens – six acres. Towards the river, the building was constructed beyond the line of the Tudor wall out into the Thames. Chambers influences were many and varied: Greece and its ancient columns, the Farnese Palace in Rome, The Mint in Paris (Hotel de la Monnaie) by J. D. Antoine, and the local Horse Guards building by Kent to name a few. To add to his problems, the ground sloped steeply to the Thames (a twelve-meter drop) which Chambers deftly used for vaults providing storage, with an open terrace above.

Arched watergate along the Thames at Somerset House

Arch was a watergate entrance along the Thames at Somerset House

photo by Michele Leight

Esplanade cafe at Somerset House

Directly above the arched watergate is a "river terrrace" facing the Thames at Somerset House

Photo by Michele Leight

Watergates led under and into the building (see photo of main entry arch), giving access to boats at any state of the tide, a real engineering feat back then. With the requirements of the brief fulfilled impeccably, Chambers gave vent to his true genius in the staircases, the most dramatic being the navy Staircase, renamed the Nelson Staircase after one of England’s greatest Naval Commanders. Its situation at the junction of the west courtyard and the riverside building allowed Chambers more space to express himself, with awesome results. It soars dramatically in dizzy curves to the skylight above, a visual departure from the buildings restrained and ordered classicism. It was severely damaged during WWI in 1940, and carefully restored by Sir Albert Richardson.

The foundations of the Strand block were laid in 1776; by 1779 the learned societies were ready for occupation. In a report to the House of Commons in May 1780 Chambers states: "…the building now erecting on the site of Somerset House is of a very uncommon kind, unusually extensive, intricately complicated, and attended with many difficulties in the execution…" His estimate of 250,000 pounds had doubled to 500,000 pounds at the time of his death in 1796. It was no where near completed.

Chambers evidently had a "thing" for splendor, captured to perfection in the Strand buildings Palladian façade and Vestibule - a testimonial to Inigo Jones, whom he greatly admired. The grand gesture of the overall design, however, is the linking of the Vestibule with the Courtyard, magnificent to behold through the arches, with the vaulted ceilings above; it gives the sensation of being inside a glorious cathedral, but with a panoramic outdoor view.

Chambers’s architectural inspiration came from a fine layering of visual experiences, beginning with his boyhood trip to China, which whetted his appetite for unusual buildings. Travels throughout his life in Italy and France were extremely influential; the Palladianism of Inigo Jones, Kent and Gibbs were local reminders of the architectural wonders abroad, and he sought to keep that flame alight in his commissions. Chambers had trained at the academy of J.F Blondel in Paris, and years of study in Italy inspired him with the Renaissance marvels of Bramante, Raphael and Peruzzi, then onward to the Baroque of Bernini and Cortona. The Vestibule pays homage to the Farnese Palace in Rome by Antonio Sangallo, with the proportions and decorations completely altered. The sheer scale and ambiance of Somerset House recalls grand Italian palazzos and plazas, with fountains secreted in private courtyards – surprise, mystery, hidden treasures. For Chambers to have achieved this with so exacting and complex a brief for a "public office" is staggering.

Chambers’s Parisian experiences imbued him with more than a passing fancy for the "rocaille" fantasies of architects like Meissonier and the "gout grec," (Grecian) proportions of Legaeay and Petitot. The façade of the Embankment building is a close sister to the Mint, or "Hotel des Monnaies, Paris," (1768-75) by J. D. Antoine, which, together with the Louvre and the Ecole Militaire by Gabriel, were his source for coupled columns and vaulting. To set the tone of the Strand block, busts of Michelangelo and Sir Isaac Newton gaze down from the entrances of the relevant societies – another nod to the Classicism of Rome and Greece, and very much the "in thing" in fashionable Paris, which he visited in 1774.

Chambers disapproved of Robert Adam, his great rival, whose riverside development "Adelphi," (a few hundred yards upstream), and Register House in Edinburgh (1774), were the source of much discussion in architectural circles. Competition often produces genius, and both architects kept a keen eye on the others "doings,"egging each other on to greater heights of perfection. Ultimately the two men diverged on the "reductive rationalism" of Greece – as espoused in Abbé Langier's "Essai sur l’architecture" – which Chambers saw as a threat to the rich traditions and craftsmanship of the past 250 years.

The labor of bricklayers, masons, carpenters, slaters, glaziers, joiners, smiths and plumbers was smoothed out and "fine tuned" by the master-craftsmen – the plasterers, carvers, painters and sculptors, many of whom were Royal Academy members and students. The President of the Royal Academy himself, Sir Joshua Reynolds, contributed his work, now removed to the new premises in Burlington House.

Chambers expressed immense satisfaction at the work he helped engender for these craftsmen: "Whenever I see, as I do often, five or six hundred industrious fellows supporting themselves and their families, many of them growing rich, under my command; I feel such a pleasure as no General ever felt in war, be the victory what it might…" He concluded that his purpose was to "enrich, to beautify it (the world), and to supply its inhabitants with every comfort." What an epitaph for the age of the craftsman, especially now in a world so devoid of that kind of richness in "making."

Public opinion of the final result was mixed; Chambers had in the opinion of many "managed to reconcile the multifarious purposes of his brief with felicity and general satisfaction," with only one complaint – from a cook in the Victualling Office who thought herself limited in the larder room! Pasquin, on the other hand, had few good things to say about the "…vast pile…a monument of our nations ignorance in the noble science of architecture…" How noble can one be having to house such a mish-mash of government facilities and learned societies. His sentiments are well-phrased, nevertheless…vast pile!

While it is impossible to give a detailed account of all the important and remarkable people who have frequented Somerset House, or the events which have shared its halls and offices, to gloss over the impact the Royal Academy of Arts has had on British art would be negligent; this great institution was the first of its kind in Britain and its founders were Sir Joshua Reynolds (also its first President) and Sir William Chambers (architect), with the backing of King George III who Chambers had skillfully obtained permission from to use seven of the large state apartments in old Somerset House.

With the advent of the spacious new Somerset House, the Royal Academy of Art was founded in 1768; its "Great Exhibition Room" was the showplace for current noteworthy artists to exhibit their work, a meeting place for the curious and the social, "…undoubtedly at that date the finest gallery for displaying pictures so far built," and a teaching school for aspiring artists and sculptors. Patronized by a King described as an enthusiastic if undiscriminating collector and patron of the arts:" George III’s support was extended to all three venerable "societies" – the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Society (Science) and the Society of Antiquaries (no, not ancient men), which basically dealt with great and interesting anthropological finds.

All three societies shared the same entrance, and it is amusing to note busts of Sir Isaac Newton and Michelangelo prominently displayed above the relevant entrances lest a member should become confused and find themselves in with a bunch of anthropologists when they were anticipating hob-nobbing with their cronies at an art exhibit. Chambers had a sly sense of humor – he left out a bust of a noteworthy representative for the Society of Antiquaries, possibly to irritate them.

Notable artists and Academicians of the day included Sir Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West, and one of the most famous students of the Royal Academy School was J.M.W. Turner, who was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1799 – and, at age 27, a Royal Academician (1802). He was Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy Schools by 1803. Did the great Turner teach his pupils about swirling mists and raging storms as well?…One can only imagine his classes! Before deciding on the current format of Institutions/agencies/galleries at Somerset House, it was under consideration to house the Turner Bequest in its entirety (see Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites) at this venerable and spacious location. To see the collection as a whole would be a momentous experience, and hopefully some other facility will be found before long amidst London’s grand old buildings for Turners generous bequest to the nation.

Well, folks may have smirked back then in the 1800s at the Royal Society and their strange ideas, and dismissed the interests of the Society of Antiquaries as less than useless – but they soon stopped sniggering. One of the first discoveries to be announced to the Royal Society in its new premises was a new planet – Uranus – first observed by William Herschel in 1781. Benjamin Franklin, a loyal Society member since 1756, did not let war between Britain and America interfere with the progress of scientific discoveries. He arranged that Captain Cook should not be attacked by American warships as he set out on his final voyage. The famous "Rosetta Stone" was placed in the Society of Antiquaries at Somerset House, when it was surrendered to the British by the Egyptian Institute in Cairo in 1801. It is now in the British Museum. (See The City Review Millennium Projects etc.).

Across the courtyard from these noble institutions, the "Hawkers and Peddlars Office" conducted the grittier business of raking in taxes from street vendors and pushcarts, bringing to mind the London of Charles Dickens and small, hungry working boys stealing from them – before Child Labor Laws were enforced. The headquarters of the Inland Revenue still occupy the East and West Wings of Somerset House and it is striking that the Government Offices are notably less ornate than the aesthetic quarters occupied by the "societies" in the Strand building.

Lord Nelson portraintHistorical and Royal associations with Somerset House are endless and even the briefest visit to this great British institution will be an inspiration for further historical and literary investigation – few places these days inspire that much! A dignified portrait, shown at the left, of Lord Nelson - who brought his country great glory at the Battle of Trafalgar – graces the Seamen’s Waiting Hall in the Embankment building, whose windows look out upon the Thames beyond. As a young midshipman, Nelson may well have walked the halls of Somerset House, seeking passage or perhaps a doctor in the "Sick and Hurt Office," encountering seamen who had succumbed to a grueling shipboard life, and living conditions below deck which gave them typhoid, rickets or severe nutritional deficiencies. Undaunted, he remained loyal to the Navy, dying a national hero who had won one of the greatest naval battles of all time. For all lovers of the sea, this is a special place.

Two major collections, one old and one new, are impressively housed at Somerset House: the legendary Courtauld Gallery and Courtauld Institute and the smaller, exquisite Gilbert Collection are both generous gifts bequeathed to the nation by remarkably generous individuals. Visitors be warned, the sheer quality and depth of the Courtauld produces gasps of wonder – mainly because it is not as well known as the National Gallery or the Tate, but for lovers of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, it is a superb collection of "modern" art, or the art of Sir Samuel Courtauld’s time (1876-1947)

Samuel Courtauld

Samuel Courtauld

Representing the art of his time was extremely important to Samuel Courtauld, and began with a commitment from him to donate 50 thousand pounds towards "modern" masters which would reflect the Old Master tradition of painting, also well-represented in the work of Rubens, Verrocchio and Michelangelo.

The uniqueness of the Courtauld Gallery is that it is entirely a creation of the Twentieth Century. Art was a "religion" to Courtauld, who originally established the collection at his house in 20, Portman Square – as a memorial to his wife Elisabeth, who died in 1931. It is remembered fondly as the Courtauld with the slowest lift in London – now that waiting is no longer an issue.

Descended from Huguenots involved in silversmithing in the 18th Century, the Courtauld’s moved on to the manufacturing of silk crepe for "mourning," this trade rendering them extremely prosperous. When the fashion for silk crepe waned, the family were ready to break new ground and became hugely successful financially as the leading world producer of a man-made textile known as rayon – a cutting-edge material at that time. Samuel Courtauld rode in on this wave of good fortune, becoming the Chairman of the Company in 1921, inheriting in the process the enormous cash reserves accumulated in the WWI years, with good prospects ahead in clothing and car tires.

Fortunately for the human race, Sir Samuel was not only hugely rich but also a man of high spiritual and moral consciousness. He wished the world to be a better – and a more "modern" – place, and his means of expressing this belief was through the medium of art. His influences and inspirations were gleaned from a memorable honeymoon in Florence with his wife Elisabeth in 1901, where he saw magnificent Italian Renaissance art and the Hugh Lane show at the Tate in 1917, where he learned that the Old Master tradition was alive and kicking in the painting of Manet, Degas and Renoir. It was his heartfelt wish to acquire works by these "modern" French Masters for the British nation that prompted him to give 50,000 pounds (a great deal of money then), to be spent on paintings chosen by himself and the Directors of the Tate and National Galleries – among them Seurat’s "Bathing Party," Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" and Renoir’s "Premier Sortie"- all on view at the Gallery today.

The paintings in the Courtauld collection are staggering both in number and in quality, and is one of the highlights of any art lovers trip to London. While Courtauld's original collection was primarily 19th and early 20th Century masters, the gallery has benefitted from several signficant bequests of Old Masters and the entire collection now ranks as one of the greatest small museums in the world.

A sublime Veronese (1528-88), "The Baptism of Christ," (1588), captures the richness of color which has made Venetian Painting synonymous with all that is luscious and sumptuous in art; Rubens (1577-1648) is well-represented on the Flemish side, including the magnificent "The Descent from the Cross," (circa 1611), the emotionally charged "Cain Slaying Abel," circa 1608-9 It is this type of work which defines the Courtauld collection; not only are they beautiful examples of an artists work, they are also historically important in the context of their contribution to the greater significance of art as a whole – "Landscape by Moonlight" is believed to have greatly influenced the English School of landscape artists – notably Constable and Gainsborough – and was cited by critics as different as Reynolds and Roger Fry. The latter had a special rapport with Samuel Courtauld, who shared his views on the spiritual significance of art.

How the Courtauld came to be both a world-renowned gallery and an institution for the teaching of art history is a wonderful and fascinating story; the teaching school was the brainchild of Arthur Lee, Viscount Lee of Farnham (1868-1947) – soldier, diplomat, politician and administrator serving in Canada and the USA. Lee married the daughter of a New York banker, and became a great admirer of East Coast "Brahmin" culture – epitomized by Harvard with its newly founded Fogg Art Museum. Personally Lee had acquired a large collection of furniture and art at Checquers, his house in Buckinghamshire; in 1917 he turned the residence into a Trust to be used as an official residence for successive Prime Ministers – who can forget the images of Sir Winston Churchill, puffing away on his cigar, as he sought refuge in paint and canvas on the quiet lawns of his retreat at Checquers at the height of the horrors of World War II. In those grounds monumental decisions were made, not the least of which was to continue to fight Hitler at whatever cost to the British nation.

Lee's persistence in founding a teaching school finally paid off. With the help of Sir Gregory Foster, Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, and major contributions from major investors including Lord Duveen, Sir Robert Witt, Sir Martin Conway – and Samuel Courtauld, who gave not money but the much needed facility for the new institution – his house at 20, Portman Square as a temporary measure until the economy improved. The Courtauld Institute of Art opened in the fall of 1932, with its first cadre of students. Lee declined having the institute named after him and suggested, with characteristic modesty, that it should be named after Samuel Courtauld for the vital role he had played in bringing the project to reality.

The Courtauld Gallery Guidebook offers insights into the many generous and impressive characters who bequeathed their collections, time and talents to the Courtauld, creating in the process one of the finest teaching institutions for the rising generations of critics, scholars and museum curators. The Lee Collection itself was always intended to provide examples for teaching – beauty, fame and immaculate condition were less important to Lee than the relationship of a particular painting to the historical development of art as a whole. Lee was a Trustee of both the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection (see The City Review article), and therefore perfectly aware that the greatest masterpieces were available for public viewing at these museums, but for him stylistic and technical "background" was as important for academic study.

The Baptism of Christ by Veronese

"The Baptism of Christ" by Veronese, The Courtauld Collection, Lee Collection

Martin Conway (1856-1937) and Robert Witt bequeathed their libraries to the Courtauld Institute, and are a vital resource for research by scholars and art dealers in Britain. Among the most public supporters of Lees initiative in founding the Courtauld Institute was the legendary Roger Fry (1866-1934), whose background as a curator of Old Master Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and subsequently a key advocate of "modern art" in Britain, led him on to critical writings on the subject which brought him attention and fame. Fry's belief in the spiritual significance of art – which for many readers substituted for religion – struck a chord in Samuel Courtauld. More so than with Lee, Roger Fry recognized in Courtauld a kindred spirit, one who possessed a willingness to support the living arts, and to find aesthetic excellence outside the traditional confines of academic art history.

Fry bequeathed to the Courtauld Home House Society unique examples of his own paintings, important designs by artists of the Omega Workshops (like Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell), which he founded in 1913, and sculptures such as an African "Head," which, within his own aesthetic were accorded equal status with the greatest works of European art.

Thomas Gambier Parry

Thomas Gambier Parry

The Courtauld’s elite collection was then London’s best kept secret – and a very successful gallery – which drew further bequests, notably from Mark Gambier-Parry, the grandson of Thomas Gambier Perry (1816-88), whose collection was principally famous for the gold-mounted Italian paintings of the 14th and 15th Centuries – such as the Crucifixion polytyptych by Bernardo Daddi and "The Coronation of the Virgin" by Lorenzo Monaco.

The next major bequest to the University was the collection of watercolors formed by Dr. William Wycliffe Spooner (1882-1967) and his wife Mercie in 1967. In combination with English 18th Century drawings in the Witt Collection and the Spooner Collection (second only to Paul Mellon's amongst contemporary post-war collections) the Gallery established itself as one of the major centers for the study of English draughtsmanship. To top this off, Sir Stephen Courtauld, Samuel's younger brother, bequeathed a group of drawings by J.M.W. Turner – essentially private sketches – including "Storm Over Margate Sands," which are now always available for viewing by appointment in the Gallery Print Room.

Count Antoine Seilern

Count Antoine Seilern (1901-78)

The 1970s brought the Courtauld one of the greatest single benefactions ever received by a British gallery – the collection of Count Antoine Seilern (1901-78), shown above, who was born in England, the son of Count Carl Seilern and his American-born wife, the newspaper heiress Antoinette Woerischoffer (1875-1901), who died at his birth. With characteristic modesty he refused to have the bequest named after himself, settling for the "Princes Gate Collection"- named after the location of his London house.

Master of Flémalle triptych

Triptych by the Master of Flémalle (circa 1375-1444), "Two Thieves with the Empty Cross and a Donor, The Entombment, The Resurrection," The Courtauld Gallery, Princes Gate Collection

Many of Seilern’s acquisitions were made through James Byam Shaw of Colnaghi’s, and reflect both Seilern’s essentially scholarly approach to collecting and also a flagrant and brilliant opportunism in securing great finished works of art from all schools and periods. His bequest includes such masterpieces as a triptych, shown above, by the Master of Flémalle (circa 1375-1444), "Two Thieves with the Empty Cross and a Donor, The Entombment, The Resurrection"; "The Madonna Standing With The Child And Angels" by Quinten Massys, shown below; Michelangelo’s drawing the "Dream of Human Life"; and the monumental "Prometheus," a 20th Century triptych (1950) by his good friend Oskar Kokoshka.

Madonna and Child by Massys

"The Madonna Standing With The Child And Angels" by Quinten Massys, The Courtauld Gallery, Princes Gate Collection

Another major work in the Princes Gate Collection at the Courtauld is "The Virgin and Child" by Parmigianino (1503-40), shown below.

Virgin and Child by Parmigianino

"The Virgin and Child" by Parmigianino (1503-40), The Courtauld Gallery, Princes Gate Collection

The Princes Gate Collection, which has three major works by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and "The Adoration of the Shepherds" by Jacopo and/or Domenico Tintoretto, is extremely rich in the work of Peter Paul Rubens: "The Descent from The Cross," shown below, "The Family of Jan Brughel the Elder," "Cain Slaying Abel," "The Death of Achilles," and the magical "Landscape by Moonlight," (1637-8), once owned by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who used it as a teaching aid at the Royal Academy.

Descent From The Cross by Rubens

The Descent From the Cross" by Peter Paul Rubens, The Courtauld Gallery, Princes Gate Collection

Samuel Courtauld would have been especially pleased when the collections of Dr. Alistair Hunter (1909-83) and Lillian Browse were bequeathed to the University; the art of the present century is well represented in works by Ivon Hitchens, Ben Nicholson’s "Painting 1937," the study for the Tate Gallery’s "Origins of the Land" (1950) by Graham Sutherland, a group of paintings by Walter Sickert, drawings by Henry Moore and bronzes by Degas and Rodin – in short a treasure-trove of modern art and sculpture. "Studies" and sketches often convey the most spontaneous impressions of the artist, and therefore offer deeper insights into the "finished" work. What next, one wonders, will find its way to this Aladdin’s Cave on the Strand, named after a true connoisseur and lover of modern art, who wanted more than anything to secure its place in the world for future generations of like-minded souls?

Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère"

"A Bar at the Folies-Bergère" by Edouard Manet, oil on canvas, 1882, Courtauld Collection

The Courtauld Collection has many world-famous paintings such as "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère," by Edouard Manet, shown above, the artist's last completed painting.

Manet's "Dejeuner sur l'herbe"

"Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe" by Edouard Manet, oil on canvas, smaller version of one in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris

Another Manet in the Courtauld Collection is a smaller version, shown above, of Manet's famous "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe" at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

Young Woman Powdering Herself by Seurat

"Young Woman Powdering Herself" by Georges Seurat

The Courtauld collection has several works by Georges Seurat (1859-91), the most famous of which is "Young Woman Powdering Herself," shown above.

landscape by Van Gogh

"The Crau at Arles: Peach Treess in Flower" by Vincent Van Gogh, executed in 1889

The Courtauld Collection has a fine self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) as well as a very bright and excellent landscape, shown above, "The Crau at Arles: Peach Treess in Flower," executed in 1889.

Mt.St. Victoire by Cézanne

The Montaigne St. Victoire by Paul Cézanne, circa 1887

Paul Cézanne painted many versions of Montaigne St. Victoire, but the Courtlaud Collection's version, shown, above is one of the strongest.

The Gilbert Collection at Somerset House

The Gilbert Collection is the result of one mans passion for great craftsmanship, and was formed over four decades many miles away from England in Los Angeles. Arthur Gilbert was born in London in 1913, but moved to California with his late wife Rosalinde in 1949. A successful career in real estate enabled him to collect works of art, primarily English and European gold and silver and Italian micromosaics, which developed further into gold snuffboxes, portrait miniatures and Italian Florentine "pietre dure."

During the 1990s, after a long association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Arthur Gilbert began looking for a permanent home for his collection; to his great excitement, Somerset House was proposed, as part of Britain’s commitment to return this great institution to its former glory. In 1996, inspired by the scale of this vision, Arthur Gilbert gave his unique collection to the nation, and was rewarded for his generosity with a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honors – hence, Sir Arthur Gilbert.

The Gilbert Collection is gloriously housed in the Embankment building, on either side of Chambers Great Arch, the original watergate to Somerset House. At the base of the watergate is displayed the eighteenth century Navy Commissioners’ barge, which would have once plied the Thames between Somerset House and Greenwich. The barge has been loaned by the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich; many of the more important works in the Gilbert Collection have historic associations with Great Britain, and their return to their "home" country may therefore be called "heritage regained," all the more so for being housed in a historically rich institution – and one of England’s greatest 18th century buildings.

Mother-of-pearl partridge

Partridge of mother-of-pearl, Nuremberg, Germany, circa 1600, The Gilbert Collection, Somerset House

An outstanding "Partridge" (Nuremberg, Germany circa 1600), fashioned from mother of pearl, would have been created entirely as a work of art, with pride of place in a princely treasury. The magnificent silver-gilt "Lafayette vase" by Jacques Henri Fauconnier, (Paris, France, 1830-35) was commissioned by the French national guards to commemorate the life of Marie-Joseph, marquis de Lafayette, a hero of both the French and the American revolutions - the figures at each corner of the base are emblematic of Liberty, Equality, Strength and Wisdom.

Howday in the Gilbert Collection

Howdah from Rajasthan, India, late 19th Century, The Gilbert Collection, Somerset House

A grand and opulent "howdah," or chair for riding on an elephant draws gasps of delight and awe ("Howdah," Rajasthan, India, late 19th Century). It is made of silver, silver-gilt, which looks like gold, wood and velvet, and was created for an Indian Maharaja; it is typical of the sumptuousness of the princely courts of India after Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress in 1877.

A powdered, scented tobacco called snuff, which was pinched daintily between thumb and forefinger and inhaled through the nostrils, became a craze throughout eighteenth-century Europe. "Taking snuff" developed into an elaborate social ritual, and their containers, often encrusted with precious gems and rare stones, were made of gold.

Demand for these exquisitely wrought objects was enormous and London, Geneva and Berlin – with Paris being the most important – became thriving centers of gold box production. They were given as intimate personal gifts, played a role in diplomacy as official gifts to ambassadors and heads of state. They had an aesthetic importance way beyond the cost of their materials, and a virtuosity of craftsmanship that is awesome – these were, in essence, miniature versions of contemporary designs and paintings. They emerge, especially in the Gilbert Collection that contains 220 examples, as some of the most remarkable works of art of the 18th century.

Snuff Box of Frederick The Great

Snuffbox made for Frederick The Great in The Gilbert Collection at Somerset House

The collection contains six magnificent boxes made for Frederick II of Prussia (known as Frederick the Great), who ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786, turning his country into an 18th century super-power. They include "Snuffbox made for Frederick the Great of Prussia, (Berlin, Germany circa 1765) wrought with gold, mother of pearl, precious stones (including several large diamonds) and colored hardstones, shown above. Twenty-six of the 300 boxes commissioned by him survive, of which eight are in the Gilbert Collection.

Purely by chance, Arthur Gilbert found a micromosaic picture at a Los Angeles auction house – the roman micromosaic was not a painting, as he first assumed, but a mosaic made from tiny pieces of opaque glass called "tesserae." His fascination with this extraordinary medium caused him to investigate the techniques, craftsmen and patrons of micromosaics.

Three hundred micromosaics later, Arthur Gilbert's pieces include examples from France, Russia and Italy, which are pre-eminent in their field and span the 16th to the 20th centuries; the majority were made in Rome in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and this unique collection of large pictures, tables, jewels, snuffboxes and small plaques of extremely painstaking detail contain thousands of tessarae, and is comparable only to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Vatican Museum in Rome.

The earliest micromosaic is Venetian, created in 1566, to decorate St. Marks Basilica in Venice – which was already a famous glass-making center. The Vatican Mosaic Workshop went on to develop the matte and opaque colored glass-like material called "smalti" in the early 18th Century, in contrast to the transparent shiny glass from Venice.

The Gilbert Collection’s micromosaic clock was a gift from Pope Pius VII, on the advice of Antonio Canova, the Italian sculptor, who considered it an appropriate gift for Napoleon’s coronation – these were, in effect, the ultimate diplomatic gifts or presentation pieces. Tsar Nicholas I was a passionate collector of micromosaics, and gave numerous commissions to the foremost mosaicist of the 19th Century, Michelangelo Barbieri – whose magnificent tables dominate the mid-nineteenth century mosaics in the Gilbert Collection.

The endearing tigress illustrated below, "Tigress," Venice circa 1850, Decio Podio, micromosaic, was based on earlier paintings like this one after the "Tigress Lying Below Rocks," by George Stubbs (1724-1806). The tigress, (the real animal not a painting) was a gift from Lord Clive, Governor of Bengal, to the Fourth Duke of Marlborough for his "menagerie" at Blenheim Palace. This charming mosaic was copied from a painting commissioned by the Duke of his big cat – and a model for the Gilbert Collections micromosaic version. It is one of the most memorable pieces on view at Somerset House.

The Gilbert Collections other "mosaics" are the Florentine Hardstones, or "pietre dure"- which date from the 16th to the 19th centuries and were composed of marbles and minerals quarried and collected from around the world. They were prized as princely gifts and collected by foreigners on the "Grand Tour," which was part of every affluent gentleman’s education in those days. In the 18th Century, English "grand tourists" collected hardstone cabinets and tables for their lavish country houses.

Sir Arthur began collecting hardstone mosaics to complement his Roman micromosaics – the two distinct areas of the collection allow the opportunity to compare the techniques and materials of the differing mosaics; the cut and polished hardstones inlaid in wood and marble make up the colorful surfaces of cabinets, tables, clocks and pictures in the Gilbert Collection. Looking closely at these finely inlaid chests and objects, it is easy to see how Arthur Gilbert became fascinated and enamored of the incredible designs, the brilliant natural colors and the amazing capacity for polished stones to appear like the surface of a painting or even a three-dimensional object. Most of all, it is wonderful to see such a fulsome representation of a craft which once thrived in Europe, with only a handful of workshops still surviving in Italy today, and to come upon these rare objects displayed in such fine surroundings.

Portrait miniatures were popular from the 17th to the 19th Century for display in collectors’ cabinets or as objects for personal adornment. Sir Arthur began collecting them as an extension of the gold snuffbox collection, many of which were mounted with portrait miniatures. The Gilbert Collection contains 80 miniatures, including "The First Duke of Marlborough," England, circa 1705-10 by Charles Boit (1662-1727), enamel with silver-gilt frame.

Immigrant artists like Charles Boit and Christian Zincke worked in England in the 18th Century and trained younger studio assistants, spawning a tradition of enameling which endured throughout the 19th Century. Many enamelers came from a background of jewelry making or goldsmithing, which accounts for the exquisite and meticulous detailing of these extraordinary pieces. A fine example by John Heinrich Herter (1734-95) of "Queen Charlotte," (London, 1781) of enamel, is set in a gold frame wrought with pearls and rubies. This portrait miniature is a copy from Gainsborough’s famous portrait that is still in the Royal Collection. Queen Charlotte created the Royal appointment of Miniature Painter.

From Manet’s avant-garde "Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe" (circa 1863/7) and Rubens’s magnificent "The Descent from the Cross" (1611) at the Courtauld, through Sir Robert Chambers Courtyard to the Gilbert Collection with its precious objets d’art and Maharajas "Howdah," the common denominator is quality – superb craftsmanship and artistry unite across the centuries and cultures to leave the visitor with a sense of awe and wonder. Before bidding farewell to Somerset House there is the pleasure of a quiet cup of tea on the River Terrace, while the Thames floats quietly by and sculpted clouds pass overhead, and images of arts great glories and mankind’s finest workmanship dance in the minds eye.

Friendly ghosts of the past lurk in the halls, corridors and rafters of this old building, now elegantly refurbished: Turner, Sir Joshua Reynolds, a weary peddler, Lord Nelson, a weather-beaten sailor, a tax collector and old Protector Somerset – rulers, adventurers and ordinary citizens, have all left their mark. As I made my exit through Chambers Great Arch, a group of young students entered, their boundless enthusiasm, laughter and chatter heralding a fresh new generation of explorers.

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is at www.amazon.com and at www.ashraya-ny.org

Click here to go to the Gilbert Collection website at http://www.gilbert-collection.org.uk

Click here to go to the Somerset House website at http://www.somerset-house.org.uk

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