The Painted Hall has been undergoing extensive renovation for the last 2 years so I was really looking forward to seeing this amazing place when it was unveiled. They managed to keep the venue open to visitors during the work by offering tours on the enormous scaffolding erected to enable the painstaking cleaning and this gave visitors a once in a lifetime chance to see the ceiling really close up. I went on one of these tours and you can read about that here.
The Hall opens to the public from 23rd March but I was given the chance to have a sneaky peek and help them test out the visitor experience.
The Painted Hall is exactly what it says, a vast hall covered with the most extraordinary paintings dating from the early 1700s and is so impressive it is often called London’s Sistine Chapel. For me the most important piece of information to know about the Hall is that it was built as a dining room for sick and injured sailors who had been invalided out of the navy and were living as pensioners in the Royal Hospital for Seamen. When you see the place, you’ll assume it was built for the aristocracy or the royals or the very top men of the Admiralty. The opposite is true as Queen Mary established the hospital for the ordinary sailors, commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to design the site and then James Thornhill (more on him later) was asked to create painting to fill the dining hall. Sadly it did not remain the sailors’ dining room for too long for, as you would have predicted, it was deemed too lovely!
The renovation took 2 years which is not surprising as there was 40,000 square feet of paintings to carefully clean and restore as well as extensive work redesigning the visitors area and opening up an underground tunnel.
The wow factor as you enter is huge and it takes a while to absorb any of the details. Your senses are stunned by the sheer volume, scale and quality of the painting and that’s before realising that the columns are not made of stone are also painted – a fabulous trompe l’oeil effect.
The Hall took 19 years to complete so spanned 3 monarchs and Thornhill incorporated them all into his paintings, a wise move especially as the 3rd monarch, King George came over from Germany and as the start of the new Hanoverian dynasty would need some attention. He is in pride of place on the far wall and Thornill incorporated George’s mother who was dead by then but was the key to his line of succession, as well as George’s son to show the stable line of succession, again a careful move by Thornhill. We also see Queen Mary and King William and her sister Queen Anne, sadly neither Queen left an heir, hence the arrival of George. Queen Anne’s story is now more well known after the popularity of the film ‘The Favourite’.
You may have spotted a figures of on the far right of the last photo, it’s Thornhill enjoying a bit of artistic licence by adding himself into the painting. He was paid by the yard – £1 per square yard for the walls and £3 for the ceilings – resulting in a full payment of nearly £7,000, although I’m sure this form of payment did not encourage him just to fill up more space! His work incorporates royal and mythical figures, local people and important symbols of the time and 2 versions of St Paul’s Cathedral where he had painted the magnificent inner dome. His multiple use of maritime references were there to emphasise both the purpose of the building and British naval might which was growing and had aspirations to be all powerful and over the next century was to achieve that aim. So Galleons appear in prominent positions, Neptune can be seen as well as references to the 4 winds, the lifeblood of sailors.
Each section of the paintings is packed full of detail and it’s well worth spending time on the benches, chairs and the many mirrors which save you getting a crick in your neck!
The windows are so beautiful, tall and elegant, framing the buildings behind them and bringing fabulous light into the Hall.
One more look back at the Hall before I left and I still in awe….
Leading from the Hall is a tunnel to the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul which passes a Skittle Alley, built to keep the sailors occupied and is still in use. You can have a go at knocking down the big wooden skittles with old cannon balls which is irresistible, especially if you get a score of 9 out of 10!
There’s a shop full of great quality items and a cafe which is liable to get very busy as it’s just what you need after your visit. There are in the newly developed entrance in the undercroft.
We gave the Painted Hall 10 out of 10 in our feedback – except for the queue for the cafe which I’m sure they will sort out ready for opening.
For more information about visiting the Painted Hall and the rest of the historic sights in Greenwich
Full disclosure: as a member of the London Society I was able to apply for a complementary soft launch ticket. I would happily pay to see this wonderful venue. We bought our own tea and cake!