I’ve been to the Courtauld Gallery a number of times while I’ve been living in London, sometimes to attend special exhibitions, sometimes just to view the permanent collection. It is small compared to the likes of Tate Britain and the National Gallery, but that just makes it more manageable.
The Gallery, located in the North Wing of Somerset House, was founded by Samuel Courtauld, and initially included mainly Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. It now has a wide range of art including religious Renaissance paintings, Old Masters and twentieth-century art. There are around 7,000 drawings as well as prints, decorative arts and a sculpture collection.
Although the gallery is best known for its 19th- and early 20th-century works, the Courtauld’s galleries extend back to the early Renaissance, featuring some 7,000 drawings as well as prints, decorative arts and a fine collection of sculpture.
When I read about this exhibition, I knew I wanted to check it out. Mat Collishaw: Thresholds is a unique recreation of William Henry Fox Talbot’s first exhibition of photographs in Birmingham in 1839. But instead of plonking down the original photos and inviting audiences to view them again, the exhibition is more daring: it uses virtual reality technology to take you back to the original exhibition.
The actual room you enter, in a corner of the New Wing at Somerset House, is stark white and filled with plain white cases. When you put on the special backpack, with glasses and headphones, however, the space is transformed. Around you is a recreation of the original exhibition space. In front of you, cases showcase the impressive photographs that were originally displayed, and you can pick them up to take a closer look. Mice run along the floor, spiders creep over the paintings, and a fire burns in the corner. Outside, you can see guards policing the streets, and towards the end of the experience you can even see and hear the Chartist protesters who rioted in 1839 on the streets of Birmingham.
The actual experience lasts six minutes, though you need to allow time for the introduction and to get your equipment set up. Though short, it’s unforgettable, and its use of very modern technology reminds you of how cutting-edge the science of photography would have seemed to exhibition attendees in the mid-nineteenth century. The exhibition isn’t on for very long, but I’d urge you to catch it before 11 June.
I went to see the exhibition By Me William Shakespeare, held at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, part of King’s College London, before it closed. The exhibition was an opportunity to view Shakespeare’s will, as well as other documents relating to his life. It incorporated research, scientific analysis and a digital installation, with the nine “most nationally important” documents selected by academics from the London Shakespeare Centre at King’s and specialists from the National Archives.
Although the exhibition doesn’t sound like much, consisting as it does of nine documents, the curators have done a great job illuminating what they all mean and exploring the context. Documents on display include Shakespeare’s Last Will and Testament (he famously left his wife the “second best bed”, though the exhibition does make clear this was not necessarily the snub it is thought to be), as well as those that include four of his six known signatures. One document refers to the infamous incident when Richard Burbage and Shakespeare dismantled the Theatre in Shoreditch and rowed it across the Thames, where they rebuilt it as the Globe. Another concerns the dowry dispute in which Shakespeare was involved because he lodged in the house of the family concerned.
As a lover of Shakespeare, this exhibition was a real treat for me and I enjoyed it, although non-fans may find it a bit dry.
Somerset House is one of the most interesting buildings in London, but the history of the site itself is just as fascinating. The current building was completed in 1780, but the site has a long history before that. It’s possible to go on an Old Palaces Tour to learn about the history of the site before the current building existed.
The site was a prime spot from the early days of London, being located on the banks of the Thames in between the financial heart, the City, and the centre of Government, Westminster. When the Duke of Somerset became Lord Protector on the accession of the boy-king Edward VI in 1547, he decided to build himself a palace on this very spot, even though it meant demolishing several churches and chapels that already existed on the land. A few years later, Somerset Palace – architect unknown – was complete, but the Duke was executed for treason in 1552 and it passed into the hands of the Crown. Elizabeth used the Palace on occasion, both as a Princess and later as Queen, but it was more heavily used after her death in 1603.
From then until its demolition nearly 200 years later, the Palace was most notable for being the home of three Catholic queens: Anne of Denmark, Henrietta Maria and Catherine of Braganza. Anne, wife of James I of England and VI of Scotland, renamed the building Denmark House, hosted numerous lavish masques, and commissioned elaborate extensions to the palace. A similar policy was followed by Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, and her addition of a Catholic chapel did not help improve relations between the King and his Parliament. On the outbreak of the Civil War, Henrietta Maria fled to France, Charles of course was defeated and executed, and Denmark House became the headquarters of General Fairfax, commander of the Parliamentary Army. The contents of the house were inventoried and sold – to this date only one picture remains as a record of what the interior looked like – and Inigo Jones, responsible for much of the seventeenth century redesign of the building, was fined by the Parliamentarians who viewed his work for the royal family with suspicion. He died at Somerset House, his estate confiscated. However, on Oliver Cromwell’s death – his body lying in state at Somerset House – Charles II was restored to the throne and Henrietta Maria, now Queen Dowager, returned to Somerset House.
The final Roman Catholic queen to inhabit the house was Catherine of Braganza, who moved in after the death of her husband Charles II and remained there during the reign of William and Mary, a difficult situation as the monarchs were Protestant. After Catherine left in 1693, the Palace was used by various government departments before falling gradually into disrepair. George III agreed that the building should be demolished and replaced by a new building for the purpose of government offices, on the condition that Buckingham House, further to the west, should be given to the Crown.
We were taken round the existing Somerset House during the tour and the history of the old palace was explained to us: it was fascinating considering that hardly anything of the old palace still exists and we had to rely on our imaginations. Our guide was really knowledgeable and enthusiastic and really brought the old palace to life.
After spending some time in the courtyard, we ventured downstairs to where the nineteenth-century embankment is visible as well as the level of the Thames waterline. Originally, boats could come right inside the palace, and these days one of the royal barges is installed behind a pane of glass (one of a pair, the other barge is at the National Maritime Museum).
Next we visited my favourite part of Somerset House – the Deadhouse, underneath the courtyard. When the old palace was demolished, the only bits saved from it were some of the graves from the Roman Catholic chapel, which have been installed here. They include the grave of a doctor, the wife of a gardener, and a diplomat.
Finally, we visited the Strand Lane Baths, which are located next to Somerset House. During the nineteenth century, it was widely thought that these dated back to Roman times, and there is a worn Victorian sign inside the building stating this. Indeed, the National Trust sign outside calls them the Roman Baths. However, it is now generally accepted that the baths date from no earlier than the beginning of the 17th century. An intriguing theory claims that the bath was originally the feeder cistern for a magnificent fountain in the grounds of the old Somerset House, built for James I’s queen, Anne of Denmark, in 1612. The Hidden London website has a very informative piece about this.
By the late eighteenth century, the baths were being used as a public bathing facility. Charles Dickens reportedly bathed here, and made his character David Copperfield take the plunge here as well. Whenever they date from, they are a fascinating little feature of the embankment. Apart from these tours, access is only possible on Open House Weekend or by making an appointment with Westminster Council.
I thoroughly enjoyed my Old Palaces Tour. Tours take place each Tuesday at 12.45 and 14.15. They are free, but are popular so don’t arrive too late. I turned up at a quarter to twelve and the first tour was full up, but I was the first person to register on the second. It’s definitely worth making the effort to go on this tour.
The exhibition Out of Chaos – Ben Uri: 100 Years in London is currently running at the Inigo Rooms in Somerset House‘s East Wing (part of King’s College London). Marking the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Ben Uri Gallery, it brings together many of the treasures of the collection.
The exhibition explores the history of the Gallery, which began as a London-based art society founded in Whitechapel in 1915. After a rocky start and a turbulent history, covering two World Wars and multiple venue changes, it is still going strong.
The rooms cover the historical timeline, the Ben Uri archives and the theme of immigration, with different rooms devoted to identity, conflict and the postwar world. Early works include those by Simeon Solomon, Solomon Hart and Lily Delissa Joseph, while the later “Whitechapel Boys” include figures such as David Bomberg and Isaac Rosenberg. One room “Forced Journeys”, looks at the impact of the Holocaust, while other displays examine art after World War II.
The final section of the exhibition is focused on the present, displaying works by artists working now and laying out the plans for the Ben Uri Gallery to be a space for all migrants, not just Jews.
I really enjoyed the exhibition, which was fascinating and contained lots of different styles of artwork. The idea of transforming the Gallery into a space for migrants of all kinds is a brilliant one, too, and I wish them the best of luck with their endeavour. Hopefully I can get to the Ben Uri Gallery itself before this happens.
The free exhibition runs until 13 December and is open 12pm-6pm Monday to Sunday, and until 8.30pm on Thursday.
With an afternoon off, I went to Somerset House to check out some of their exhibitions. Beneath the Surface is presented by the Victoria & Albert Museum, Photo London and Somerset House and includes works from the V&A that are rarely displayed.
Commissioned by Photo London, the exhibition contains a huge breadth of works, ranging from Charles Thurston Thompson’s (1816-68) early photographs of paintings for conservation purposes to Nigel Shafran’s (b. 1964) unusual images taken for the 2012/13 V&A Annual Report. Because of Somerset House’s location by the river, the pictures selected largely focus on the water, too. They have been chosen by the V&A’s Senior Curator of Photographs, Martin Barnes.
Among my favourites were William Strudwick’s (1834-1910) photos from the Old London series, taken in the 1860s: these captured the riverside shortly before the construction of the Embankment, and include scenes of Lambeth, Westminster and nearby areas, as well as several medieval coaching inns shortly before they were demolished to make way for the railways. I also liked Thurston Hopkins’ (1913-2014) scenes of underground London life in the 50s; the street scenes in particular were full of energy.
Some of the pictures were more abstract: John Gay (Hans Göhler (1909-99) took pictures of lots of different manhole covers in the 1960s, revealing a wealth of different patterns. Robert Brownjohn (1925-70) took interesting pictures of street signs at around the same time, while Naoya Hatakeyama’s (b. 1958) image of a darkened sewage tunnel in Japan, from his series “Underground 1999”, is atmospheric and haunting.
Other works were particularly unusual: Benjamin Stone (1838-1914) and George Scamell (active 1900s) photographed Newgate Prison before its demolition in 1900-1902, resulting in some truly eerie images of immense historic significance. As part of the National Photographic Record Association, their job was to record a variety of subjects, many more sinister than those typically captured on film. I really liked Pedro Meyer’s (b. 1935) work, in which he set a digitally-manipulated photograph of himself as a young boy with his father alongside a picture of his adult self with his own son.
The exhibition runs until 24 August and is fascinating viewing for anyone enraptured by old photographs.
I spent some time during my day off at Somerset House, which always has plenty of exhibitions to see, and visited the Terrace Galleries to view the exhibition Unseen Waterloo: The Conflict Revisited. This is a collection of photographic portraits taken by Sam Faulkner to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.
Faulkner has taken pictures of participants in the annual re-enactment of the battle that takes place in Belgium. Those who take part dress in historically-accurate uniforms, paying close attention to detail. The portraits could have been taken at the time of the battle itself – if photography had been invented then. From teenage drummer-boys to old and grey-haired generals, the exhibition really emphasises the humanity of those who took part.
The pictures explore how we remember those who died in war before the invention of photography, and I thought they were very effective in bringing home the individuality and personality of each soldier. Sometimes it’s difficult to comprehend the humanity of the 54,000 soldiers who died at the Battle of Waterloo, the last major European battle which was not recorded in photography (the Crimean War of the 1850s marked the entrance of the war photographer, bringing home the human cost of battle. Seeing so many pictures alongside each other, each representing a dead soldier, was sobering.
Somerset House is one of the most interesting buildings in London, with a long and rich history – in terms of the site itself, not just the existing building. It’s also been used as a film set on numerous occasions. I signed up to the Shot on Site tour to learn more about this aspect of the building’s history.
Our tour guide was enthusiastic and knowledgeable and I learned a great deal about the topic. Around 40 films have been captured here to a greater or lesser degree over the years, beginning with The Long Arm (1956) and The Day of the Jackal (1973), in which Somerset House effectively played itself, as the home of birth, marriage and death records that it then was.
Those films were unusual in that they used interior shots: this is rare as Somerset House, being designed as an office building, does not have particularly lavish interiors. For instance, the exterior stood in for the Devonshire residence in London in the film The Duchess (2008). In children’s movie Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang (2010), Flyboys (2006) – about a group of American pilots – and even Sleepy Hollow (1999), with the aid of some green screen, aspects of the Somerset House courtyard stood in for various locations, including a London street and a French hospital.
Somerset House has appeared in two Bond films, Tomorrow Never Dies and Goldeneye, standing in for a St Petersburg car park in the latter. It has “played” Buckingham Palace three times – in TV series Spooks, comedy The Worst Week of My Life and in children’s sequel Agent Cody Banks: Destination London (2004). The site has appeared in X-Men: First Class (2011) and in the 19th century-set romantic comedy Hysteria (2011) with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who apparently took several takes to cycle away wearing cumbersome Victorian skirts!
For me, the most fascinating part of the tour was the visit to the Lightwells and Deadhouse in the basement. The Lightwells, narrow passages running around and underneath the courtyard, are gloomy and atmospheric and acted as a prison in the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movie. In the Deadhouse, so named because it is the last remaining part of the palace that once stood on the site and still contains graves of palace staff, we were informed that it stood in for a bunker below the Ministry of Defence in the World War II thriller Glorious 39.
Finally, we were shown some glimpses of forthcoming movies which used Somerset House for filming, including the soon-to-be-released Suffragette. I really enjoyed the tour and if it comes back next year – which it may well do as part of the Film4 Summer Screen season – it’s definitely worth getting a ticket.
After visiting the tattoo art exhibition at Somerset House I found my way downstairs into a “hidden” exhibition about the old Somerset House palace. This was built during the Tudor period, originally for Protector Somerset, but he died before it was completed.
The palace being next to the Thames, it was ideally placed for river-based entertainment. During the seventeenth century, a floating coffee house called “The Folly” was often moored outside. Visitors travelling along the river would often stop and visit: Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, himself visited in 1668.
On display are several items from the history of Somerset House, dug up by archaeologists over the years. There is also a barge, used by the Commissioners of the Royal Navy, which would have patrolled the river during the 17th century.
Somerset House is currently hosting an exhibition on tattoo art. I don’t have any tattoos myself, but I can appreciate the incredible artistry that goes into them.
Time: Tattoo Art Today presents artworks from 70 of the world’s most influential tattoo artists, including Ed Hardy, Horiyoshi III, Paul Booth and Rose Hardy. The artists were commissioned to create new works on the theme of time. The result is a varied collection of artworks made with a range of different materials and methods including watercolour, sculpture, oil painting and painting on silk.
There were some incredible pictures, wonderfully detailed. I still don’t think I want a tattoo myself, but I can’t help but admire the quality of the artists’ work.
Time: Tattoo Art Today is on in the Embankment Galleries, Somerset House, until 5 October. Entry is free.