Somerset House

Restoration of the maritime reliefs

Somerset House was built on the site of a Tudor palace belonging to the Duke of Somerset, its construction occurring incrementally between 1776 and 1856. In 1789 the Navy Board moved into the newly-completed South Wing, followed by its subsidiary Boards, the Victualling Commissioners, the Sick and Hurt Commissioners and the Navy Pay Office. The Treasurer of the Navy lived in the mansion overlooking the river. As well as providing office space and accommodation, Somerset House was where examinations for promotion to the rank of lieutenant took place, sat by several hundred midshipmen each year. Before Victoria Embankment was built, the South Wing was set right up against the lapping waters of the river. The ornamentation of the South Wing all relates to the sea and was designed in the 1780s by Joseph Wilton (d. 1803).

In the niches of the south entrace to the South Wing stand a host of Portland stone figures. Occupying the left-hand niche, a pair of Tritons cling to a vase ornamented with laurel leaves, fish, sails and flagstaff. The right-hand niche hosts a symmetrical pair of Tritons clinging to a vase ornamented with laurel leaves, ball and chain, fish, scoops and hook. The shield of arms (by Richard Rathbone) over the ground floor entrance, set into the bridge, is of Neptune surmounted by naval arms and flanked by dolphins, tridents, palms and festoons of seaweed. These had been badly damaged by atmospheric pollution and organic growth. The restoration of these figures will included full recording, specialist cleaning using the façade gommage technique (light powder cleaning) and remodelling areas which have almost weathered entirely away (eg Triton fingers). The stone was then dressed to help protect and prevent further deep soiling.

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