Somerset House is a large building situated on the south side of the Strand in central London, overlooking the River Thames, just east of Waterloo Bridge. The central block of the Neoclassical building, the outstanding project of the architect Sir William Chambers, dates from 1776–96. It was extended by classical Victorian wings to north and south. A building of the same name was first built on the site more than two centuries earlier.
In the late 20th century the building was reinvigorated as a centre for the visual arts. The first institution to move in was the Courtauld Institute of Art, including the Courtauld Gallery, which has an important collection of old master and impressionist paintings. In the late 1990s the main courtyard ceased to be a civil service carpark, and the main terrace overlooking the Thames was refurbished and opened to the public, these alterations being overseen by the leading conservation architects Donald Insall & Associates. A visitor centre featuring audiovisual displays on the history of the building; the gilded Lord Mayor of London’s state barge; and a shop and café were opened in the wing overlooking the river. The Gilbert Collection of decorative arts, and the Hermitage Rooms, which stage exhibitions of items loaned from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, moved into the same area. The Eastern wing is largely occupied by the Department of Music of King’s College London.
In the winter the central courtyard is home to an open air ice rink. At other times an array of fountains display vertical jets of water rising to random heights.
Somerset House was also the main location for the BBC’s New Year Live television show, presented by Natasha Kaplinsky, which celebrated the arrival of the year 2006.