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Dr Noah Charney is author and specialist in the history of art crime. He was the guest for our podcast episode discussing art crimes and lost art.

I was fortunate enough to study history of art at The Courtauld, which is housed at Somerset House on The Strand in London. I loved the feeling of attending seminars in a palace (a fantasy for us Americans, with no proper palaces of our own), of trundling down the steps into the library, replete with the scent of old books and leather satchels and perfume (it felt like 95 per cent of the student body there consisted of elegant young ladies). Walking across the courtyard, which was converted into an ice-skating rink come wintertime, passing through the cafe at the far side and emerging onto the terrace overlooking the Thames and the Brutalist, though beautiful in its own way, National Theatre across the river felt cinematic. What a privilege for me to have called that my intellectual home for a year!

But turning left and right from that perch on the terrace, what I saw as a postgraduate student back in 2002 was a very different sight from what those would have spied back in the early seventeenth century, the period of art history that I was studying. For few realise that this magnificent palace was just one of many built from the twelfth century on. If a Harry Potter moment might have occurred, the act of my crossing the courtyard transporting me back a few centuries in time, would have revealed a lineup of great palaces not unlike Somerset House in scope and intricacy, perched on the banks of the Thames.

There was Arundel House, the seat of the Royal Society, until the Great Fire of London robbed it of its former headquarters. What was left of the palace was knocked down in 1678. York House was the London residence of the Bishop of Norwich as early as 1237. It was sold to developers in 1672, and subsequently destroyed to make way for new roads and city planning. The Outer Temple of the Knights Templar was converted into a mansion called Essex House, which was demolished in 1674. Savoy Palace housed the renowned right-hand man of Richard II, John of Gaunt, said to be the most magnificent house of any nobleman in England, before it was destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, led by Wat Tyler. It would be rebuilt in 1512 as the Savoy Hospital, but was ill-kept and knocked down in 1816, making way for what is now the Savoy Hotel. This is not to mention Cecil House, Exeter House, Hungerford House, Northumberland House, Salisbury House and more. Try to imagine the swath of London real estate from the Strand down to Charing Cross Station, awash with palaces, each more lavish than the next, all opening to the Thames.

The Thames at the Savoy

The Thames at the Savoy

Samuel Scott (c.1702–1772) (style of)

All but Somerset House were demolished by the seventeenth century, when this area was no longer fashionable for the nobility, who moved towards London’s West End, ceding the Strand to plotters in pubs – the 'Duck and Drake' tavern was where the renegades of the Gunpowder Plot liked to meet, and the Levellers connived against Charles I at the 'Nag’s Head'. A shift in city planning turned this pocket of wondrous houses, packed with art and life, into a decidedly less aristocratic, though also lively, neighbourhood, featuring restaurants and cafes, including Twinings, after which the famous tea brand is named. When King’s College was founded in 1828, the Strand shifted to a student neighbourhood.

With all these changes, we have only good fortune to thank that Somerset House was preserved, and must employ our imagination, and the historian’s descriptions, to envision what a spectacular site it must have been, spiked with mansions until the 1670s. The danger is that one could live in London one’s whole life and never learn of these ‘invisible palaces’ of the city, which would be a great shame. For the art that happens to have survived the centuries and millennia, largely through chance, is not necessarily the most important to have ever existed. We have a ‘survivor’s bias’ in favour of extant art and monuments and buildings, but it offers a skewed view of history, and risks ignoring magnificent creations that were crucial to history, simply because we can no longer visit them.

Dr Noah Charney, professor

Noah is a graduate of The Courtauld Institute of Art, University of Cambridge and University of Ljubljana. He is a professor of art history specialising in art crime, and a best-selling author of 13 books, including his most recent, The Museum of Lost Art, published by Phaidon. He is the founder of ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, and welcomes people of all ages to study with him in Italy in the summer, on the ARCA Postgraduate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.