The Painted Hall In Old Royal Navy College In Greenwich

Written by Nika Garrett on .

The Painted Hall in Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich

The idea to buy a square foot of the Painted Hall was conceived at the back of my mind half way through the walk that will for long be remembered as a ‘windswept tour in Greenwich’. As I stood my group of visitors against the King Charles Court of Old Royal Naval College to offer them the minimum shelter against yet another gust of wind and rain, I felt deeply sorry for them… Surprisingly, the best wrapped up individual in the Grand Square was George II. You wouldn’t have recognised him easily for all the layers the statute was wearing. Someone did put a crown on his head though.

Braving the weather we stood later waiting for the Time Ball on the Royal Observatory to be hoisted half way up the mast at 12.55, all the way to the top at 12.58 and to be dropped exactly at 1pm – the highlight of the 12 15 guided walk.  Needless to say, the Time Ball was never hoisted that day due to the weather conditions.  The first Time Ball was made of leather and installed in 1833 and it did fall off once on a windy day in 1850s. The one we were hopefully staring at is made of aluminium and replaced the previous one in 1919.

To cheer and warm my visitors and myself up a bit (3 lovely Greenwich residents and business people, a couple from South Africa and a Japanese gentleman with his small son who was yet to tell us half way through the walk that he wants back to his mum) I made an exception (12 15 tour does not include the tour inside the Painted Hall) and took them into The William Court.

  The Painted Hall is a place that I spent endless hours learning about Sir James Thornhill’s masterpiece when I was doing my Greenwich Guides course last winter and as a result fell under its spell. Even on a flying visit like ours (we spent just 5 minutes indoors as we were yet to climb up the hill to the Royal Observatory after all) the magic of this magnificent hall played the trick or shall I say it was  trompe l'oeil.

It took the artist some 19 years to complete his masterpiece from 1708, though one should not forget that he had his assistants to help and other jobs in between to do.  While Rubens was paid £10 per square yard for his painting of the ceiling in the Banqueting Hall, Thornhill received only £1 per square yard for the walls and £3 per square yard for the ceiling. Once you are inside the lower hall look up and imagine the artist standing on the scaffolding painting the founders of Royal Hospital; Queen Mary II and William III, virtues and vices, Hercules and Apollo and the delightful zodiac signs and seasons of the year. If you are being given a tour, you are bound to hear that the winter is modelled on a real pensioner John Worley who though in his 90s still had a reputation of a notorious womaniser and trouble-maker… If you want to spot him, think of the oval painting above your head as the face of a clock (with Apollo at about noon) and look for an old man with white hair and beard at 7 30.  You will most probably also hear about Rev. John Flamstead the first Astronomer Royal depicted with his assistant Weston in the right upper corner above the entrance, but you may not always be told that to the right from the Spanish galleon there is a figure of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus or as we call him in Polish Mikołaj Kopernik, clad in black with his solar system in his right hand. 

From the lower hall you can step under the arch decorated with summer zodiac into the ‘ACT II’ of the story of the Painted Hall; its founders and benefactors. Well, you could but you can’t do it right now…

For the first time since over 50 years and the 11th time in its history the Painted Hall is being conserved and it is the upper hall that the works have commenced in and are due to last till May 2013.  

The screen with the copy of the painting of the Hanoverian dynasty will stop you from walking into the upper hall where a plaque would remind you that Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson lay here in state in early January 1806. It took quite a while before his body reached Greenwich and the mysterious disappearance of the brandy he was transported in gave the name to the drink called Nelson’s Blood.

The screen shows the full size back wall painting.  In the middle of it seated and leaning against the terrestrial globe is George I who couldn’t speak a word in English and earned himself a nickname 'Turnip-Hoer' after he announced his ambition to use St James's park for cultivation of root vegetables.  If you stand on the one side of the painting and look at the king’s foot and then walk to the opposite side, the foot will ‘follow’ you. The eyes of the figures will play the same trick on you. (I must admit though that curiously it doesn’t seem to be working that well with the screen instead of the original painting) You will be looking for king’s wife Sophia Dorothea of Celle in the picture in vain as she spent her life locked up for adultery till her death. It was something that the son, who was to become George II, never forgave his father for.

George II is rightly depicted in his full amour and he does look much better here than the weather bitten statue in the Grand Square. He was first of all a soldier and the last king of Britain to lead the army into the battle in person at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743. Don’t miss the artist – Sir James Thornhill himself as he’s standing against a pillar and gesturing towards the king and his family or maybe St Paul’s at the background.  It was him after all who painted the interior of the dome of the cathedral. They say it is not true he’s asking for more money… Among the symbolic figures depicted in the painting the horn of plenty would come very handy though at a time like this…

The cost of the conservation of the square yard of the painting is estimated at £675 and you can read the list of benefactors that have made the first phase of the works possible on the information boards. The list includes the name of Nerina Spriggs one of the staff at ORNC that has always been happy to answer my inquisitive questions about the hall. There is a number of exciting events held at ORNC you can join in and learn more about the conservation works. You can even climb the scaffolding yourself!

The money I have earned on my recent ‘windswept tour in Greenwich’ thanks to @MisterGreenwich, @SanMiguelTapas and @helstweets (£21 altogether) will go towards the donation for the conservation works in the Painted Hall. If you’d like to help me raise the remaining £54 so I can ‘buy’ the square foot, please join me for a guided walk in Greenwich. The 2 15 walk includes about 15 - minute tour inside the Painted Hall. That rainy and windy afternoon in Greenwich it was a friend of mine @anthillbignest who kept me company for the afternoon tour. The day was yet to finish with a lovely stroll along the Thames, a chat and dinner with @DawnCorleone who will hopefully visit Greenwich in July this year. It was in a way very much a tweetup day…

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