Canaletto, Somerset House, and Victoria Embankment

I arrived at Yale graduate school, having just graduated from King’s College London. Not surprisingly then, when I discovered the Yale Center for British Art building, I immediately went in for a wander.  Intrigued to find a 1750 painting of Somerset House hanging on its walls, signed by none other than the acclaimed „vedutista“ (a painter of panoramic views) Canaletto, I decided to try and understand more about Somerset House, this geometric and palatial 16th century building in London, that flanked King’s College. I soon realized that its beginnings were as aristocratic and grandiose as they are mysterious: the architect of the building is not known. The sumptuous three-storey Renaissance building is one of the earliest of its kind in England, and over five centuries, it changed, and changed again, reinventing itself and its purpose as the times changed.

Works on Somerset house began in the 1540s, though it would take many decades before it was complete. Even then, the house had many subsequent changes. The story goes that in the 1530s, Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford, received some land in the area directly above the river Thames, and started a grand palace construction project. This involved tearing down most of what was there in order to lay the foundations for his flashy new residence on the Strand. In 1547, he became Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector to the boy-king Edward VI. It seems that nothing was further from Edward Seymour’s mind than to abandon the plans he had for redeveloping his mansion. The works were in full swing when he was overthrown and executed in 1552. The building was left half-finished.

“Somerset Palace”, as the house was then also known as, became the royal residence of Elizabeth I, Queen Mary I, and finally Anne of Denmark, consort to King James I. Royal occupancy of Somerset House continued into the 18th century, with interruptions to mirror the many crises of the English monarchy in those three centuries. Naturally, whenever a new royal occupant moved in, they moved out leaving their own cachet in terms of modifications they had made to the building.

In the mid-18th century, the building began to be used for grace-and-favour residence purposes, a kind of “benefit in kind” system in which royalty would grant persons a free stay in the residence at Somerset House to thank them for favours or services.

It was around this time that Canaletto painted the building and the views of London to the East, and the West, from the Terrace of Somerset House. Canaletto had moved to London in 1740, and stayed there until approximately 1755, as he had been very successful in Venice selling his paintings of Venice vistas to Englishmen traveling on the grand tour. When, in those years, the English ceased to travel to Italy as much as previously, Canaletto squarely moved to England, to be closer to his market, and took many commissions from English patrons to paint their residencies, or landscapes and cityscapes; the views from Somerset House fall within this category (see above). A nerdy trivia about Canaletto in London is that he was at one stage believed to be an impostor by art critics who thought his style had become all too predictable, and was forced to paint in public in order to prove his identity as the painter, Canaletto.

What struck me (as it would anybody) about Canaletto’s Somerset House painting, was that it showed it with direct access to the Thames, un-embanked at that time. The Thames Embankment is a Victorian achievement, as the name “Victoria Embankment” suggests. Characteristic ironwork designs like nautically themed street lamps with Poseidons enormous, gaping-mouthed fish, or Egyptian themed benches with camel and Sphinx, make this stretch of the Thames historical in its own way. To embank the Thames had certainly been a project contemplated by other generations before the Victorian era. Although proposals to do something about the marshland in central London and to reclaim the acres near the Thames had been put forward by architects and engineers before, the works began in 1862. The project was huge, and it also incorporated a section of the London Underground network, the Savoy Hotel and Shell Mex building, as well as the creation of extensive public gardens atop the river, which Londoners can still enjoy, in the center of town.

Definitely an amazing part of town to visit.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons. Yale Center for British Art