Monday, April 22, 2019

Somerset House, London

Taking pains

Quite often I find myself in or near Somerset House in the centre of London – partly because work sometimes takes me to the Strand, partly because I’m a regular visitor to the Courtauld Gallery, both for its stellar permanent collection and for its often excellent temporary exhibitions. You get into the gallery through a door inside the vast building’s entrance archway, but I often take a minute to walk around the vast courtyard while I’m there, marvelling at the building’s size, proportions, and plethora of architectural sculpture. It’s easy to take for granted Somerset House’s 18th-century classicism and vast size now, but back in the 18th century this was an innovative building: London’s first office block and a formidable feat of organisation in bringing together several diverse bodies of scholarship and government – the Royal Academy, the Navy Board, the Stamp Office, for example, and accommodating them within what looks like a classical palace. This year, however, the Courtauld Gallery (which occupies just a small part of the complex) is closed for redevelopment* and I’ve not been in the Strand entrance – my most recent encounter with Somerset House happened to be at the back, when I was walking along the Thames embankment.

As you move along the pavement on this river side, it’s hard to take in the facade because it’s enormous – some 800 feet long. It’s also part of a major engineering project. The architect, William Chambers, had to cope with the fact that there is a 40-foot drop between the Strand frontage and the river shore. So he had to construct the embankment to allow for this and support the southern part of the building. From the pavement, you see a succession of massive stone walls, much of the masonry heavily rusticated, some of it vermiculated, and punctuated with arches, niches, and occasional pieces of carving on keystones.

What struck me as I took all this in was not just the sheer scale, but also the meticulous craftsmanship. A close-up of an arch and a neighbouring bit of wall, above, might demonstrate what I mean. For a start, the sheer effort in cutting by hand all that vermiculation on the stone blocks. Admirers of the brutalist architecture of London’s Barbican Centre sing the praises of the concrete, in which many of the surfaces have been bush-hammered to give it a textured finish. True enough, this takes care and skill, and the effect is admirable. But look at this detail of Somerset House – square yard upon square yard of hand-cut vermiculation: it represents skill and effort in abundance. So does the moulding of the arch and the precise cutting of its blocks. But look still more closely (clicking on the image should help) and one can see that the surfaces of these apparently flat pieces of stone have been expertly and finely tooled so that their surfaces are actually made up of a series of precise parallel lines, the work of who knows how many skilled man-hours. A similar affect is even visible on the bevelled edges of the vermiculated blocks.

I’ve recently been reading Richard Sennett’s Building and Dwelling, and looking back at one of his previous books, The Craftsman, which focuses on the kinds of skills involved in this kind of work and highlights the importance of doing things well.† There’s lasting value, and also pleasure, in taking pains to get it right. It’s easy enough for admirers of Somerset House to praise the architect who brought it into being: Chambers certainly deserves admiration for his design. But spare a thought – spare more than one thought – for the masons and carpenters and sculptors and plasterers who brought it into being. In these days when developers are content to put up a host of poorly designed, ill-finished and no doubt ephemeral blocks along the banks of the Thames in order to make a fast buck, it’s worth lingering here and reflecting on the effort this building took and the way it has lasted.¶

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* A small selection of master works from the permanent collection is currently on display in the National Gallery and remains there until April 2020; some are also on loan to the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris. Reopening is not expected until some time in 2020.

† Richard Sennett, Building and Dwelling, Allen Lane, 2018; The Craftsman, Allen Lane, 2008

¶ The photograph is slightly high resolution than usual, because I hope that will help readers to see the surface of the flat stones clearly. I have also increased the contrast a bit, to bring out this effect. Clicking on the image, as usual, will enlarge it.

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