The Painted Hall in Greenwich is a wonderful sight at any time but during their restoration project you can climb a huge scaffolding and see the artwork close up. There’s a massive conservation project going on before the hall reopens in full splendour next year.
What is the Painted Hall? They certainly didn’t spend too much time thinking up the name! The enormous hall is covered in an array of extraordinary artwork. Dating from 1694, the hall was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, the finest architects of their day, the paintings were added between 1707 and 1726 by Sir James Thornhill. If that name sounds familiar it’s because he painted the interior of the dome at St Paul’s Cathedral and this major commission pre-dates St Paul’s so the Painted Hall was a huge boost to his career. He was paid £1 per square yard for the wall work and £3 for the ceilings and as the whole lot came in at a whopping 40,000 square feet, which would have added up to a reasonable sum – £6,685 apparently. The 21st-century restoration is costing £10.5 million so let’s hope this work lasts the 100 years they’re are banking on! The tour costs are going towards this as well as a great deal of fundraising.
The Painted Hall is part of the Old Naval College, originally the Old Naval Hospital, and was intended as an eating space for naval pensioners who were living in the Royal Hospital for Seamen. Built for men invalided out of the navy, it was soon considered too grand for them, a sad thought given that the men had served their country and been badly wounded.
‘One of the most spectacular and important baroque interiors in Europe’ is quite a claim to live up to but one visit to this historic venue will confirm this statement. Thornhill’s paintings reflect Britain’s growing power and dominance on the world stage and were planned to impress. One major focus is the accession to the throne of William and Mary in 1688 and George 1 in 1714 and London is well represented in the imagery. Thornhill draws on historical figures as well as mythical and contemporary to delight viewers, filling every inch with interest.
After seeing various different uses since it was built, the hall opened to the public in 1998 when the Naval College relocated and it became a popular film location for movies such as Lara Croft Tomb Raider and The Pirates of the Caribbean. Here’s Johnny Depp being dragged along by the British officers.
During the conservation project, ceiling tours are available with a great local guide to explain the work you are seeing. You start with a safety briefing and are togged out with hard hat and hi-vis vest.
Then you climb 60 feet up the elaborate scaffolding to be almost within touching distance of the ceiling which is extraordinary close-up. Here are some shots to give you an idea of how it looks, although the light bouncing off the ceiling makes photography a challenge.
Every inch of the ceiling has a story to tell often of ordinary people, not just royals or mythical creatures, as this portrait of John Worley illustrates. He was one of the first pensioners to be taken into the hospital in 1705 after he had been at sea for over 70 years! Thornhill used his weather-worn face to represent winter in the lower part of the ceiling.
The scaffolding is extremely safe and fabulously complex!
There are sections of the walls of the hall which have been restored ahead of the ceiling and the dramatic difference makes me eager to see the ceiling work completed. The aim is to raise the public’s awareness of this treasure, both abroad but also internationally and to move it from being a bit of a hidden gem to be on the ‘must see’ list for visitors to London.
Tours are running through to 30 September 2018 but if you do miss out, the hall will reopen in 2019 so keep your eyes open for that. Full information on the Painted Hall website: https://www.ornc.org/