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How is Somerset House presented as a statement of Sir William Chamber’s intent?

Updated on December 22, 2015

Following the enlightening Renaissance and later on the ornamental and graceful Rococo period, there was a need to analyse, extract and distill the essence of Antiquity in a search for truth and purity: it is this spirit that embodies the Neoclassical period. Whilst London and Great Britain generally seemed to have evaded the Renaissance, much like the Baroque movement, it was greatly influenced by Neoclassical figures. For London, the 18th Century proved to be a time of sudden change with rapid growth due to the start of the Industrial Revolution, and the developing emergence of the British Empire. In this Imperial Century, London was in a state of flux; and needed to house the main ships of the largest navy in the world. The different societies that were spread around the capitol were to be housed under a single roof. It is in this context that the Somerset House was set, commissioned by King George III. Sir William Chambers designed the quadrilateral edifice around a central courtyard, allowing its construction between 1776 and 1796. For a project of this magnitude, the architect was charged with creating “an object of national splendour as well as convenience” and could make a mark not only on his career, but also the appearance of London and to a further extent the nation. Therefore, it would be necessary to investigate how did the Somerset House represent a statement of Sir William Chambers’ intent? In order to explore this, this essay will firstly address the issue of the building as a statement of Sir William Chambers’, before seeking how it was representative of Britain’s imperial power. Finally, this essay shall highlight how the house acts as an embodiment of the navy.

To understand the impact of Somerset House, it is important to underline the shift that took place in terms of hierarchy surrounding the building. Somerset House was metamorphosed from being a noble residence into a governmental edifice that housed art societies, naval officials and civil servants. A power shift was occurring, symbolised through this building which seated democracy after monarchy. In 1774, the king and Prime Minister “consented to its demolition… in exchange for the settlement upon Queen Charlotte of Buckingham House as her official dower house”. King George III acquired the Buckingham House for the Queen, decentralised Somerset House as the royal seat of power and allowed Somerset House to become nationalised, permitting the establishment of offices within it. Furthermore the three learned societies of the century, the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Arts and the Society of Antiquaries, were to be accommodated within the house; a personal request from the commissioner King George III. Whilst the centralisation of these previously split apart societies seems peculiar, it embodies the spirit of neoclassicism. In Italy, whilst Bramante imitated the Greek temples and Roman forms, he sought to use his buildings for a new purpose. The plan of his Tempietto at Rome derives from pagan architecture, but he uses it as a martyria, and as a symbol to promote Christianity rather than defy it in a pagan manner. To quote Summerson, “the great achievement of the Renaissance was not the strict imitation of Roman buildings (…) but the reestablishment of the grammar of antiquity as a universal discipline”. The Somerset House relates to this idea in the sense that it incorporates classical elements but transforms from its monastic prison and blossoms into a public owned space, acquiring new uses. Chambers imposed a sense of authority with the creation of this edifice. King George III, who was acting as patron to the project, can be seen as a Renaissance man himself: he was a talented musician, aspiring painter and studied architecture under Sir William Chambers, who “was employed to teach architectural drawing” to the king. It was under his wish that the Somerset House was to act as the centre of culture and the navy, and it was in this Renaissance spirit that the building was designed, allowing Chambers to impose his ideas. Within this house, Chambers incorporated a classical approach in order to express a statement of his style.

To a further extent, it is interesting to note that Chambers studied both in Italy and France, where he adopted a neo-Palladian style; a style which incorporated collumns and pilasters into ideals revolving around perspective, symmetry and a focus on Greek and Roman temples. These elements revolved around Palladio’s late sixteenth century treatise “Quattro libri dell’architecttura" which Chambers read, and had an annotated copy of. To develop knowledge of this style, Chambers devoted great attention to the buildings of classical and Renaissance architects during his time as a Grand Tour resident in Rome, after having studied under Clérisseau in Paris in 1755. Furthermore, Chambers is known to be an architect who applied “neoclassical concentration on essential truth rather than superficial appearances”. Chambers’ style represents a view in which he studies and respects classicism, especially deriving from Rome, and uses it in a new manner to create a statement, through a building that is contemporary for its time. Moreover, “the work which best sums Chamber’s architectural belief is Somerset House” and this can be seen through his application of the classical language in the hope of creating an edifice with a newfound purpose.

It is possible to identify aspects of Somerset House which are reminiscent of Palladio. For instance, the river wing facades show faultless proportion and detail of the sequence of bays grouped in bay units of 3-5-3; 9-5-9; and 3-5-3”. Palladio kept full control of a building through proportion, as he transformed musical harmonies into visual harmonies, when they were applied to spacial relationships. Proportion in architecture creates a sense of equilibrium and purity, moulding different elements of a building into a single entity. This is the case with the Somerset House, which is a symbol of harmony through partially symmetrical facades, and sequenced bays. Equally, it is worth noting that the quote from Baretti’s Guide stating that Somerset House was “an attempt to unite the chastity and order of the Venetian Masters with the majestic grandeur of the Roman”, a commonly used English Neo-Palladian technique. This anonymous quote illustrates the fact that Chambers used classical influences and combined them in an eclectic manner, in order to expose his style. For example, the Strand facade possesses a Vestibule where lies a triple-arched entry with a play of cross-vaults and coupled Doric columns”, reflecting the general idea from the High Renaissance Farnese Palace entrance designed by Antonio da Sangallo. By imitating da Sangallo and Palladio amongst others, Chambers identifies the importance of the Renaissance and uses it to his advantage within the Somerset House. The building is a statement of his style in the sense that it possesses classical elements like cornices, Doric columns and cross vaults in the Strand facade, but uses it in a different context, where the city is London and not Rome, and the purpose consists in housing and representing government. Having analysed Chamber’s style expressed through Somerset House, it would be interesting to explore the statement of his capabilities that is shown by the building.

To understand how Somerset House allowed Chambers to express his genius and capabilities as a designer, it is necessary to understand that Chambers was left with a number of challenges to take into consideration and seeing the success of the building, the Somerset House can be seen as an example of innovative neoclassical architecture. For instance, there was a forty foot drop from the Strand until the Thames, on the site where the building was located. To fix this, Chambers decided to sink the buildings into the ground, enabling an external optical illusion as the buildings appear to be at the same height. This optical illusion, not indifferent to the techniques used by Greeks at the Parthenon, for instance, is accompanied with the use of Palladian bridges, linking the Strand facade to the East and West wings create the impression of This however, raised the problem of light in the bottom floors. Chambers fixed this too, with the introduction of cavities around the buildings, known as light wells. These strategies prove the innovative mind of Chambers, but also the success of the Somerset House in adapting and expanding. Moreover, a requirement for the building was to have the option of harbouring ships through the arcades on the Embankment. Chambers fixed this by sinking the Embankment facade into the ground: two floors were underground which enabled a clear interaction with the Thames. Related to this point are the arcades themselves, which were designed by Inigo Jones during the previous century. These arcades served as an inspiration to Chambers, and there is a clear resemblance. In the painting below, the artist portrays the Somerset House seemingly rising with the arcades from the Thames, amongst the fearsome waves. Jones was one of Chambers’ important influences as he was the main Renaissance figure of England in the 17th Century, who inspired a Renaissance attitude and the emergence of Neoclassicism and Neo-Palladianism.

On the other hand, it would be interesting to consider the execution of Chambers’ capabilities in terms of importance of the building. In order to design such an edifice, Chambers studied in France and Italy, and it is known that he was influenced by important public buildings in Paris. Whilst it has been argued that Adam and Chambers are not as well known as Wren, and that they are not seen as the indisputable architectural champions of their era, they remain important neoclassical architects. Chambers was appointed as the King’s architect, and it has been implied that he sought to match the importance of buildings like the Farnese Palace in Rome, and the Hotel des Monnaies and Versailles in Paris. Within the Somerset House, Chambers successfully conveyed a sense of authority through the Stamp staircase: whilst the top floor is heavily decorated and is reserved for the higher ranking civil servants, the decorations decrease with every floor, as the importance in social class of the people residing within them decreases. The bottom floor is reserved for servants, with the landing of the staircase holding no ornaments compared to the top floor which is decorated in a colourful and rich manner. A sense of authority is therefore expressed throughout the building; visible from the interior with the level of detail, and the exterior with the imposing Corinthian columns and pilasters.

Chambers had a close relationship with French neo-classicists, and his Strand apartments possess a Parisian character with pilaster strips and shallow consoled ceilings. Paris was a city that Chambers had lived in and admired, and the buildings not only served as inspirations to him but also as examples. Louis XIV ordered Le Brun to construct the Galerie des Glaces within Versailles in 1680 decorating it with rows of trophies over the cornice, and green marble Corinthian pilasters which are emphasised with the wall filled with mirrors, representing the wealth of France. It served as an important setting for events during Louis XIV reign, and remains a landmark to this day, having hosted the Treatise of Versailles for the end of the First World War in 1918, much like the Armistice of Versailles for the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. By contrast, the Somerset House did not create the impression of power, but exerted a feeling of authority through an imposing form coupled with the Doric and Corinthian orders which impose a sense of command to the structure. In addition, in the East and West Wings, the building is home to the Inland Revenue and the Birth and Death Registrar, as well as housing the Stamp Office in the North Wing. Taxation was run in the tax office This feeling is conveyed in both the Ecole Militaire and the Hotel des Monnaies in Paris, whose pedimented porticoes coupled with Corinthian columns surround the buildings. Thus, Chambers relates his creation to monumental Renaissance and Baroque buildings that he visited and experienced in Europe, and it is arguable that he intended on designing the Somerset House in the spirit of a Parisian building, intending on making it an emblem of his style and an emblem of British architecture within central London.

The final point that must be explored is the royal navy in comparison to the house, since the building is an embodiment of the might of the navy. The 18th Century was a time of rapid growth for Great Britain, and the importance of the navy was without equal and in 1776, the same year as the construction of Somerset House, the navy was at the height of its power. In terms of foreign policy, Britain was expanding as an empire through the navy, and the Somerset House sat on the Embankment, on the edge of the Thames was the main route for goods and ships into London. Within the courtyard of Somerset House lies a statue of King George in a Roman togo, on top of Father Thames who holds a cornucopia. This is representative of the importance of the Thames, which allowed good and materials in and out of the city, as well as the navy. During the expansion of the Empire, the threat of invasion from the Dutch and the French was great. Therefore, the creation of such a building can be seen as a statement; to create an imposing structure that represents the navy and embodies the power of the British Empire, which itself as represented by the navy. Multiple nautical themed sculptures are arranged around the house, for instance the small statues of Triton, Poseidon and Amphitrite symbolise power at sea. The building was home to the three most known sea gods in Greek History, much like it was home to the most important members of the British Navy. Horatio Nelson, a famous flag officer, took residence there and in the modern Somerset House, a wing and staircase are dedicated to him. The staircase is an innovative half spiral staircase, which at its base has the bow of a ship soaring above towards a continuing spiral. Not only does it express Chamber’s genius, but it renders homage to one of Britain’s finest naval officers, as it spirals towards an oculus in the roof.

Related to the Somerset House being a symbol of the power of the navy, it would be important to highlight the importance of the navy itself. With Britain’s constantly expanding empire, the navy was a chance for men to take pride and represent their country, for it was the most renown naval force in the world. A typical British seaman serving under Nelson was seen as a soldier who ”equalled three Frenchman and four Spaniards”, which shows a great deal of pride but also power. The British navy was a force to be reckoned with, which adds further importance to the Somerset House; the headquarters of the most important navy officials, including Nelson himself. During the 18th Century, and particularly during the Battle of Trafalgar Square, Nelson insured Britain with “100 years of peace”. At this battle, Nelson pushed forward for such a humiliating victory, ensuring the destruction or capture of every enemy ship to the extent that the French and Dutch were too discouraged to attempt another invasion. The Embankment facade reflects this spirit, with the large imposing Roman Corinthian columns and pilasters that form the symmetrical wall made of Portland stone. Chambers explains that the Corinthian Order is “proper for all buildings, where elegance, gaiety and magnificence is required”. Both the Embankment and Strand facades express just that. Nonetheless, within the Somerset House Chambers’ sought to show such magnificence: through his use of materials he intended to show a “profusion of ornaments to mark its superiority” for he used the best material, including timber from Russia, hard grey stick blocks and the “best materials of all kinds”. The architect intended on expressing the superiority of the building, and to an extent the navy and the general culture of London by bringing back the glory of Antiquity.

In conclusion, the Somerset House can be seen as a statement on behalf of Sir William Chambers. Having completely destroyed the remnants of the previous palace, including the chapel designed by one of his heroes, Inigo Jones; Chambers converted into an imposing governmental structure, on behalf of Parliament and his commissioner, and patron, King George III. It evokes a great sense of superiority through the use of antique elements combined with contemporary strategies, in order to express both the might of the British navy and governing body.


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