Say you have a Neoclassical palace lying around on the Strand, not getting much use. What do you do with it? If you’re the city of London, you renovate it into a world class arts hub — exciting galleries in the majestic interior, entertainment in the spacious courtyard. These days, it’s hard to think that Somerset House was ever an underused building. Skaters glide across the ice in the winter, concertgoers revel in summer, and models and celebrities strut the runways here during London Fashion Week. It’s a true year-round cultural destination, offering something to aficionados no matter the season.
That said, the calendar explodes with great shows and activities in the late summer. The courtyard’s 55 water fountains — geysers built flat into the ground, perfect for racing through — are on full blast, with people of all ages dodging the jets and letting the spray keep them cool. It looks like good fun to you and your friends, but instead of getting soaked, you plan to soak in the stories from his old place. Somerset House has a long, twisted history full of royal dalliances, treason, and plenty of rebuilding. The original, 16th Century building is long gone, but even the “new” 18th Century Somerset House needed renovations a few decades ago to turn it into a welcoming public space. It’s amazing to think, but this gorgeous courtyard was a parking lot until the 1990s.
But as you explore the place on your group outing, you and your friends are glad to see Somerset House in its present glory. You wander inside and see the Courtauld Gallery, an assembly of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work, where you lose yourselves in the paintings of Monet and Degas. The Impressionists cast a dreamy spell on you, but the temporary exhibit Time: Tattoo Art Today jolts you awake. You’ve seen plenty of tattoos in your day, but artists like Ed Hardy and Mister Cartoon are on a whole different level. Bold colors, sharp lines, eye-opening subjects — you can’t take your eyes off an image of a young woman in the arms of death.
Somerset House will look much different for fashion week (September 12-16), when the elegant palace teems with models, designers, and celebrities. The catwalk goes on under closed tents — sadly, London Fashion Week is an industry-only event — but the courtyard will be one of the hottest people-watching spots in London, and that’s saying something. But while the flurry of fashion activity will be a big draw, you’re glad to experience the place in its quieter moments.