Somerset House, Weaving Threads Of Tradition & Modernism

The Somerset House, you could say, is a miniature version of what London offers to the world.

Somerset House
PHOTO Sarah Cho

Upon arriving in Heathrow Airport in London, I was quite disappointed that nothing was drastically different. I had been excited about this trip, as it was my first time visiting Europe. However, my expectations, whatever they may have been, were instantly satisfied when I stepped into the taxi: the driver’s seat was on the other side! My heart started beating fast when I finally realized that I was in another country. Although nothing was familiar, every moment was full of exciting opportunities and adventures.

Somerset House was the epitome of the drastic contrast between the Renaissance Gothic culture of Europe that London holds and the contemporary art that emerged after 20th century. Somerset House hosts the Courtauld Gallery and its collections include paintings from the Renaissance to Renoir and Gogh. The panel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Adam and Eve, is one of the rare pieces in the Renaissance Collection of paintings. The panel strikes the viewers with vivid colors and carefully concentrated brushworks and accuracy of fine lines. Few rooms besides the Renaissance Collection, pieces from the Baroque and by Rubens are hanging on the wall as if to firmly set their presence in the gallery. The 18th century English portraits also are part of the gallery to accentuate mesmerizing portrait by Goya. Then the gallery moves onto its collections of Impressionists and Post-Impressionist paintings. These are more familiar to us such as Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear by van Gogh, Two Dancers by Degas, and beautiful landscapes by Cezanne.

Not even 100 feet away from these amazing collections of paintings and sculptures, the Somerset House houses the fashion designer Corrie Nielsen’s studio in the building. Though the terrace and the fountain court were unoccupied at the time of visit, they would be full of people and cameras for Fashion Week in London twice a year. During winter, the grounds of the fountain court would be laid with ice and transform into a romantic ice rink.

The house itself holds long history and stories. After Henry VIII died, Edward Seymour, Edward VI’s uncle, was determined to increase his power and decided to build himself a palace. After his death, Elizabeth I was given the palace to occupy. After Elizabeth I, Anne of Denmark and Norway, Henrietta Maria of France, General Fairfax during the Civil War, Inigo Jones, Oliver Cromwell, and many other royal families and important figures called the Somerset House their home. Moreover, smaller components of the House, such as the Nelson Stair and the stamp chair, contribute to the unique story that the Somerset House tells. These were added when the construction of the new Somerset House began in 1776. The Nelson Stair was named when the Naval Office was in the Somerset House. Overlooking the Thames River, the Navy Board influenced the House to be more ornate and decorative.

London, the city itself, is already filled with the unique combination and intricate weaves of tradition and modernity. The Somerset House, you could say, is a miniature version of what London offers to the world. The mixture of the past and the present, the Somerset House had given the perfect introduction to my time in London.

Article written by Sarah Cho.

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