Said by many to be the English equivalent of the Sistine Chapel, The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich is one of the most spectacular and important baroque interiors in Europe.
You might get some idea what awaits when you first arrive at the Cutty Sark station or as I prefer to do, arrive by boat on a Thames Clipper to see the buildings as they were surely meant to be be seen, from the River Thames.
Its 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 modern state of the United Kingdom was created and almost immediately became a dominant power. He may not have made much money from the endeavour, at least not as much as one might assume but it is fair to say that his dedication to the work he painstakingly undertook held him in good stead for the his future career as well as giving us a treasure to behold for all time.
The accessions to the throne of William III and Mary II in 1688 and George I in 1714 form the central narrative of a scheme which also triumphalises Britain’s maritime and trading successes. The artist drew on a cast of around 200 figures to tell a story of political change, scientific and cultural achievements, naval endeavours, and commercial enterprise against a series of magnificent backdrops. The characters he included are allegorical, mythological, historical and contemporary.
The grandeur of the composition, which covers 40,000 square feet, reflects the importance of the space the paintings adorn: the hall of a new Royal Hospital for men invalided out of the Navy. The Hospital was established at Queen Mary’s instigation in 1694 and designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Wren took inspiration for this new complex of buildings from other early modern European projects to house military veterans such as Louis XIV’s Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, as well as his own Royal Hospital at Chelsea. The Painted Hall itself was originally intended as a grand dining room for the Naval pensioners, to illustrate the pride and supremeacy of the Royal Navy but the powers that be soon decided that it was really to majestic for the sailors and it soon became a ceremonial space open to paying visitors and reserved for special functions.
The Painted Hall is extravagant, playful, thoughtful, naïve and politically-shrewd. Thornhill’s work which gained him a most well-deserved knighthood and incidentally a payment of £6,685) presents a vivid and compelling picture of Britain’s place in the world according to those who governed it at the start of the eighteenth century, namely front and centre and on top whilst surrounded by lesser and more tyrannical nations. The Painted Hall has overawed and delighted visitors ever since.
The Lower Hall ceiling of which a tiny section is shown above, measures 15 by 30 metres and was created 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’. I’m sure it is only co-incidental that it appears to be a thinly veiled depiction of Louis XIV of France… of course it is not co-incedental!
One of the last areas to be completed was the west wall in 1725 and it celebrates the arrival of the Hanoverians (‘a new race of men from Heaven’ as its motto declares) with George I at the centre of a large family group portrait. Other figures and objects reinforce messages of peace, stability and prosperity underpinned by naval might.
Thornhill used a variety of techniques such as chiaroscuro (contrast of light and dark), fictional light sources and foreshortening to enliven his paintings. His use of illusionistic architecture and steep perspective was inspired by Roman high baroque painting.
Due to the epic 19 years of hard work it took to complete the commission from 1707 to 1726, Thornhill had to be mindful of the ever changing machinations in the political world of London and on more than one occassion had to to rethink the design of his paintings several times with various figures either being given a more or less prominent position.
When he had completed his work, Thornhill wrote An Explanation of the paintings which was published by the Hospital directors and sold to visitors.
In January 1806 the Painted Hall saw the laying-in-state of Admiral Lord Nelson on his long journey to St Paul’s Cathedral following his death at the Battle of Trafalgar. Large crowds queued up to view the body of Nelson over three days. The exact spot where the coffin lay is marked by a plaque on the floor.
For a hundred years from 1824 the Hall was given over to the first National Gallery of Naval Art. Rather incredibly Thornhill’s painted interior assumed secondary importance to more than 300 easel paintings by artists such as J.M.W. Turner and Sir Joshua Reynolds.
The last naval pensioners left the site in 1869 when it became home to the Royal Naval College, an officers’ training academy. From 1937 to 1997 the Painted Hall functioned as a dining space for trainee officers of the Royal Navy and now the broader site is the home of the University of Greenwich.
If you’d like to see some other posts on Greenwich then why not check out my post on the Vikings and St Alfege, or the History of Time Zones and why we keep changing the clocks in winter. Of course there are some serious funky and modern parts of Greenwich including this great Cable Car Ride over the River Thames. There is so much to see in Greenwich and of course you can explore it with me through Ye Olde England Tours 🙂