Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich
I don’t often visit Greenwich, but if I have friends visiting from abroad, this famous World Heritage Site would be one of the must-see spots in London. Known for its maritime history and royal links, Maritime Greenwich has been a royal manor since the early 15th century. The former Palace of Placentia was the birthplace of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. After the palace fell into disrepair during the English Civil War, it got demolished by Charles II in 1660.
Instigate by Queen Mary and inspired by the Palace of Versailles, a group of buildings were rebuilt between 1696 and 1712 and were arranged symmetrically around a ‘Grand Axis’. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, the buildings were originally constructed to serve as the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, also known as Greenwich Hospital; and when the hospital closed in 1869, it was eventually converted to the Royal Naval College in 1873.
Painted Hall’s lower hall ceiling before the restoration
Dubbed as London’s Sistine Chapel, The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College is one of the most spectacular and important baroque hall in Europe. I vividly remember visiting this hall for the first time about a decade ago; while I was quite awestruck by what I saw, I was also surprised that I didn’t know of its existence before my visit.
The Painted hall’s splendid 40,000 square feet ceiling and wall decorations were conceived and executed by the British artist Sir James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726 at the pivotal moment when the United Kingdom was created and became a dominant power in Europe. Originally intended as a grand dining room for the Naval pensioners, the Painted Hall soon became a ceremonial space open to paying visitors and reserved for special functions.
The painted hall’s upper hall ceiling and west wall. The wall also features the artist himself, Sir James Thornhill, standing and staring at ‘us’ with his paint brushes and paints behind him (next to the column)
A three-year and £8m conservation work of the Painted Hall started last year, and aims to complete in 2019. Over the last 300 years, smoke and dirt has built up on the surfaces of the painted ceiling, and varnish layers have fractured under the effects of heat and humidity. Since pollution has taken its toll on the painting, a new underground entrance and visitor centre will reduce the amount of pollution from entering into the hall. Visitors will also see the restored King William Undercroft, where the baroque architecture of Wren and Hawksmoor will be revealed for the first time in over a century.
During this conservation period, daily hourly guided tours of the ceiling provide the public the opportunity to see the masterpiece up close. The tour lasts for about an hour, and I found it fascinating to learn about the history of the hall and the stories behind some of the 200 figures featured in the paintings.
The Lower Hall ceiling, executed between 1708 and 1714, celebrates the ‘Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny’. At the centre of the composition are the figures of King William and Queen Mary surrounded by various mythological and allegorical figures. The king is shown with his foot on a figure representing ‘arbitrary power and tyranny’ – which appears to be a thinly veiled depiction of Louis XIV.
We were told that the restoration work done a few decades back did not match the style of the original painting
Our guide informed us that their work is conservation rather than restoration. They aim to conserve the original painting rather than restoring it. Restoration made a few decades back altered the original painting, and they do not intend to let it happen this time.
You can support this grand project by donating or simply pay a visit to the site. It is really worth a visit, even if you are afraid of heights like one woman in our group! Perhaps this is the true power of art – it can transcend fears into joy (provided you don’t look down when you descend the scaffolding staircase).
Bottom row: the Chapel opposite the Painted Hall