Most of the time I feel quite young and then suddenly I realise how the years have passed. When I first came to London vast swathes of Greenwich were out of bounds to land lubbers as Wren’s magnificent building were the Royal Naval College and for those in uniform only. Rumour had it that the interiors of the buildings were as spectacular as the exteriors.
Nowadays you no longer see sailors wandering around Greenwich and the site is known as the Old Royal Naval College, it turns out that the rumours were true. What’s more, anyone can visit the Painted Hall and the Chapel. At the moment the Painted Hall ceiling is being restored and whilst work is in progress tours enable you to climb the scaffolding to get up close and personal with the ceiling.
Your visit starts with you donning hi-vis vests and hard hats, each group is colour coded, ours was a tasteful blue. Once safely clothed, you sit in front of the restored wall painting for a bit of background about the building. Originally Queen Mary II had the bright idea of creating a hospital for retired sailors along the lines of the famous Chelsea Pensioners Hospital for retired soldiers. Christopher Wren was summoned to come up with the designs and work commenced.
Unfortunately the Queen died but her distraught husband ensured the plan was completed. James Thornhill was commissioned to paint the dining hall of the hospital. He took his task seriously and took 19 years to cover all four walls and the ceiling with paintings. The whole room is a painterly work of propaganda showing the obvious and god-given connection between the Jacobean and Hanoverian Royal households.
Climbing the scaffolding stairs up to the ceiling gives you a perspective on the hall that Thornhill must have had when he was creating it. When you arrive at the ceiling, you are in a place so slow low that those of us who are six foot could just reach up and touch it, not that you are allowed to. So close that you can see the brush strokes, you lose the sense of the overall picture, it makes you realise just how very clever James Thornhill was with his design and execution.
Once your eyes have adjusted to the nearness of the painting and by bending down a little, details begin to swim into shape. I particularly liked this depiction of Isis and Father Thames snuggling up to each other.
Painting is not the only thing you get to take a close look at. This royal Coat of Arms which looks so impressive from a distance looks a bit dusty, as well it might after nearly four hundred years.
The Painted Hall is an amazing sight to see with or without scaffolding. When the restoration is complete, the opportunity of taking a close look at the brush work will be gone. Go and see this once in a lifetime sight whilst you can.
PAINTED CEILING TOUR
King William Walk, Greenwich SE10
Open: Daily 10am – 4pm
Admission: Adult £10, Children and concession £5