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Rebuilding the Somerset House: Nationalism in the Architecture

The eighteenth century saw a great movement in the space of London in terms of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction projects — an attempt at expanding the metropolis. This urge can be associated with another prominent intent of the time of creating a national identity that would coexist with the increasing capitalist sentiment. By examining the 1775 rebuilding of the Somerset House, this article attempts to situate the project as an eighteenth-century precursor to a nationalist impulse, which would become a dominant preoccupation of the upcoming centuries. To analyse the concept of nationalism, one can use the definition of "nation" given by Benedict R. Anderson which is closely associated with the intention, structure, and public use of the new Somerset House. Anderson provides a working notion of a nation as "an imagined political community —and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign" where the ideology behind the reconstruction of the Somerset House largely makes use of the keywords of this definition: "imagined", "limited" and "sovereign".  


         Nation, as an "imagined" category, requires the forging of bonds among people, where there are no other natural ties of kinship or communal feeling. To create such a sense of collective identity, authorities or knowledge systems often resort to a common culture, a shared past, and traditional associations. This makes it pertinent that William Chambers, the architect of Somerset House, instead of a radical innovation, chose to build the new House as a Classical structure with its orderly symmetry and distinct parts, thus locating it within the tradition and associating it with other such works. Neo-Classicism, as the popular, contemporary style, allowed Chambers to not only associate with the current trend of the period but also enabled a connection with the traditional heritage. The building, with its abundant sculptural designs, has echoes of classical myths, royal heritage, and national heroism, invoking a mutual history for its visitors. Most significantly, Chambers carved a space to accommodate the Royal Academy within the building, which served as a means to collect, preserve and present art thus enriching the cultural capital of the building. The Royal Academy did not hold a random collection, but a sequential narrativised arrangement of art. This was augmented by the regular Royal Academy exhibitions, as the art was displayed to the public, thus increasing the focus on spectacle and show, which is tied to the creation of a reservoir of cultural artefacts for the people, while also generating monetary gains. As Martin Postle also argues, "Somerset House was a platform for increasing the prestige of the Royal Academy, but it could also prove to be a straitjacket. Its new location placed the Academy firmly in the public eye, and associated it inevitably with officialdom". Therefore, art gets intricately linked with its public use: as a cultural entity to formulate national affiliations.


         Perceiving the nation as a "limited", thus a bounded domain, draws attention to its global position as the nation becomes a distinct space defined against other such national territories. Recognising itself vis-a-vis other places in the world materially informs the imperial pride of a country, adding another dimension to its nationalist sensibility as a major political world power. British colonial power gets directly manifested in its public spaces, as noted by Jonathan Schneer, in his book, London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis: "The public art and architecture of London together reflected and reinforced an impression, an atmosphere, celebrating British heroism on the battlefield, British sovereignty over foreign lands, British wealth and power, in short, British imperialism". The new Somerset House also became a reminder of this British imperial might, directly visualised in the four statues present at the Strand front representing the four continents, Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, which evoke the British colonial advents in these places. Remarkably, the new building housed the Navy Offices thus accounting for the maritime theme of its many sculptural ornamentations. This, according to Susan Jenkins, served as a celebration of "England's naval power and maritime connections". Along with various keystones representing the ocean and different rivers, the central bronze statue in the courtyard also carries with it the motifs of water, military power, and imperial grandeur as it positions George III with the River God. The sprawling structure of the Nelson Stairs situated in the Navy Board Rooms also symbolised the nation's military prowess and its imperial potency. Therefore, the new Somerset House carried the consciousness of Britain as a global subject, or imperial power, thus acknowledging the enclosed structure of a nation in a nationalist imagination.


         Finally, the intention behind the rebuilding of the Somerset House also alludes to the "sovereign" structure of a nation. The 1775 Act of Parliament decided to make the new House a national building with an imposing structure and expensive decorations. Caroline Knight traces the impulse behind this: it was to create a space of unified authority to bring various Civil Servants and public offices together in a glorified building, instead of their previous scattered locations. The Somerset House with its royal past and associations served to be a perfect fit for this purpose, and thus became an abode to many public offices such as the Salt Office, Tax Office, Marriages and Deaths Office, Registrar of General of Births, Hawkers and Pedlars Office, and so on. Uniting these various government authorities enabled the creation of an image of a single official establishment, especially after the diminishing effect of the British monarchy as a sovereign power in the minds of the people. This presents the new Somerset House as a national building feeding on a nationalist impulse to create a sovereign authority that would be a consolidated whole of various government officials, societies, and administrative structures.


         By mapping the definition of "nation" as given by Anderson on the space of the new Somerset House, one can trace a nationalist sensibility in the planning, building and utility of the rebuilt House as it becomes a reservoir of culture forming communal bonds, a tribute to British imperial power as recognising its place in the world, and a national building of unified authority.





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