Long hidden from the public, London's regal Somerset House throws open its doors this month as it makes its debut as a world-class center for the arts.
For generations, this 18th-century neoclassical masterpiece, with its commanding position overlooking the Thames, has been largely given over to government records offices and to Inland Revenue, the British tax-collection agency.
But now, the Gilbert Collection of decorative arts will open to the public May 26 in the Thames-side South Wing. Then, as if that weren't enough, a branch of Russia's famed State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg will join the Gilbert pieces in late fall.
Outside, the Somerset courtyard, long the realm of parked cars, is being transformed into an important new public space. Restored to its original dignity and elegance, this 40,000-square-foot area will soon serve as a stage for open-air music, film, theater, and dance events.
Public servants at Inland Revenue, which still occupies the east and west wings of the Somerset, will have to ride the London Underground to work.
Meanwhile, the Courtauld Gallery, which for 10 years has occupied part of the North Wing of Somerset House, may soon expand into South Wing space. The gallery, with its lovely little collection of important Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, is part of the Courtauld Institute of Art (University of London).
An L.A. story
It was the extremely generous gift of one man that spurred this transformation. Sir Arthur Gilbert, who grew up in north London but moved to Los Angeles some 50 years ago, collected an extraordinary group of European silver, gold snuff boxes, and Italian mosaics over the past 30 years.
Part of Sir Arthur's 850-piece collection, estimated to be worth more than $160 million, has been on loan to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
During a visit to London several years ago, however, he met with Jacob Rothschild, head of the famous banking family and, at that time, chairman of Britain's Heritage Lottery Fund.
Lord Rothschild was able to put together a plan to bring the Gilbert Collection - a heritage that could have been lost to Europe and to Britain - back to London.
"I'll tell you what sold me," Sir Arthur says. "First of all, he mentioned Somerset House, and every Englishman knows Somerset House."
Sir Arthur was won over by plans to restore the legendary, albeit seldom-visited, building designed by Sir William Chambers and built between 1776 and 1801. He particularly liked the plans for the courtyard.
Then, last summer, Lord Rothschild and Prof. Mikhail Piotrovski, director of the State Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, agreed that permanent space at Somerset House would be taken for year-long exhibits from the Hermitage collection.
The premier exhibition, scheduled to open in late November, will be "The Treasures of Catherine the Great (1762-1796)." Included will be jewels, gold medals, and contemporary portraits and miniatures bought for Catherine's own private collection.
When Gilbert collection curator Timothy Schroder speaks about the gold boxes, his voice becomes soft with admiration. "The collection is a very encyclopedic and exhaustive collection of the art of the gold-box maker in Europe in the 18th and early 19th centuries," he says.
Of the 220 boxes, six were made for Prussia's Frederick the Great. Displayed in darkened areas where most light is emitted from the display cases themselves, the boxes often appear to be floating in mid-air. Many are so densely yet gracefully decorated with jewels and other precious materials as to create visual disbelief.
The collection contains two kinds of mosaics: Florentine Pietre Dure (hard stones) and Roman micromosaics. This, according to Mr. Schroder, is "the only comprehensive collection of this material in the world."
Meanwhile, a generous and thoroughly dazzling display of gold and silver pieces, along with a group of portrait miniatures, is included in the rest of the collection.
Meeting of like minds
Writer Geraldine Norman, director of the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, played a key role in bringing Professor Piotrovski and Lord Rothschild together.
She has spent much of the past few years in St. Petersburg, working on projects such as her book about the Hermitage Museum.
"Our dream is that by walking into the Hermitage Rooms in Somerset House you'll feel that you're walking into a wing you've never visited of the Hermitage," Mrs. Norman says.
"We're bringing Russian workmen over to [install inlaid wood floors and] as much gilding as we can afford."
Norman says that after the Russian Revolution, "the Hermitage inherited the Imperial Collection. So that's the reason ... it's one of the greatest museums in the world - because Catherine the Great was the greatest collector the world has ever known."
Along with the two new museums and the re-created courtyard, visitors will be able to walk Somerset's River Terrace, providing expansive views across the Thames, for the first time in over 100 years.
The terrace will also serve as an entrance to the museums and to a cafe, and will be directly connected by ramp to Waterloo Bridge.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society