Painted Hall

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Stupendously decorated dining room

The Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

The central oval and a section of the cornice in the Lower Hall (and a little bit of ceiling and window)
It may be worth bring­ing a pair of binoc­u­lars to ful­ly appre­ci­ate the Paint­ed Hal­l’s ceil­ing

Hon­oured as a roy­al bor­ough in 2012, Green­wich draws hun­dreds of thou­sands of vis­i­tors every year to expe­ri­ence the delights of the Nation­al Mar­itime Muse­um, the Roy­al Obser­va­to­ry, the Cut­ty Sark, the 02 Are­na and the shops, mar­ket stalls, pubs and restau­rants. Yet one attrac­tion is often over­looked, despite its extra­or­di­nary splen­dour (and the free admis­sion).

The heart of Britain’s naval and astro­nom­i­cal her­itage, Green­wich lies on the south shore of the Thames, oppo­site the Isle of Dogs. In 1427 Humphrey, Duke of Glouces­ter, built Bel­la Court here as his river­side res­i­dence. After the duke’s death Mar­garet of Anjou, wife of Hen­ry VI, enlarged the house and renamed it Pla­cen­tia, or ‘pleas­ant place’.

Hen­ry VII made the new palace even grander and it became a favourite roy­al resort. The future Hen­ry VIII was born here in 1491 and he made fur­ther elab­o­rate improve­ments to Pla­cen­tia. Eliz­a­beth I was also born at Green­wich and spent much time at the palace.

What is now the Old Roy­al Naval Col­lege was orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed as a new palace for Charles II, to replace Pla­cen­tia. Instead, it was rede­vel­oped as a naval hos­pi­tal (as it was called, but in fact more of a res­i­den­tial care home for wound­ed or infirm sailors) by Christo­pher Wren and his suc­ces­sors over a peri­od of fifty years from 1695.

The cen­tre­piece of the hos­pi­tal was the din­ing hall and in 1708 James Thorn­hill was appoint­ed to dec­o­rate its walls and ceil­ing with suit­ably mar­itime (and impe­ri­al­is­tic) imagery. Then in his ear­ly thir­ties and yet to gain a rep­u­ta­tion as an artist of note, Thorn­hill was so keen to take this com­mis­sion that he made no attempt to nego­ti­ate the price of his labour, sim­ply ask­ing the author­i­ties to pay him a rea­son­able fee when he’d fin­ished the job.

He huge­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed the scale of the task and it took him almost 20 years to com­plete it. It is said that his pos­ture was nev­er the same after­wards, as he had spent so much time flat on his back, with one arm raised. For­tu­nate­ly, the mag­nif­i­cence of his achieve­ment gained due recog­ni­tion and Thorn­hill was knight­ed and paid almost £7000, based on a rate of £1 per square yard for the walls and £3 per square yard for the ceil­ings.

Hidden London: Painted Hall

Thorn­hill’s baroque art­work adorns the Vestibule, the Low­er Hall and the (small­er) Upper Hall. The two halls are sep­a­rat­ed by an arch with the Roy­al Arms and gild­ed signs of the zodi­ac, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The focal theme of the Low­er Hall ceil­ing is the tri­umph of Peace and Lib­er­ty over Tyran­ny, with William and Mary pre­sid­ing in the cen­tral oval. All around, a host of mytho­log­i­cal and alle­gor­i­cal char­ac­ters are depict­ed – both good (tri­umph­ing, or attend­ing upon British roy­al­ty) and evil (being destroyed or tram­pled upon). The fig­ures are accom­pa­nied a vast array of nau­ti­cal and mil­i­tary para­pher­na­lia, includ­ing anchors, cables, rud­ders, masts, sails, oars, ensigns, pen­nants, pow­der-bar­rels, grap­pling irons and com­pass­es, to name but a very few, as well as more clas­si­cal orna­men­ta­tion.

When the Paint­ed Hall was final­ly ready for use, in 1727, it was deemed too grand for every­day eat­ing and the Green­wich pen­sion­ers began to take their meals in the under­crofts below. Instead, the pub­lic were admit­ted to the ornate but emp­ty hall for a fee of 6d. The body of Admi­ral Nel­son lay in state here for three days in Jan­u­ary 1806 and 30,000 peo­ple paid their respects. In 1824 more than 100 paint­ings were hung on the walls and the hall served as the Nation­al Gallery of Naval Art until 1936, when the pic­tures were moved to the new­ly found­ed Nation­al Mar­itime Muse­um. There­after the Paint­ed Hall was used as a naval din­ing room until 1998.

Since the depar­ture of the Navy the Paint­ed Hall has been man­aged by the Green­wich Foun­da­tion for the ben­e­fit of the nation and is open dai­ly to the pub­lic. It can be hired for ban­quets with up to 480 guests, and it is dif­fi­cult to con­ceive of a more awe-inspir­ing place for such an event.

The Paint­ed Hall reopened in March 2019 fol­low­ing a two‑year Nation­al Lot­tery Fund­ed con­ser­va­tion project.

Hidden London: Painted Hall ceiling

The Painted Hall, King William Court, Old Royal Naval College, London SE10 9LW
Phone: 020 8269 4747 (Greenwich Foundation general enquiries)
Website: Old Royal Naval College
Open: Daily (except over Christmas) 10.00am to 5.00pm, but occasionally closed for private events
Admission free
Nearest station: Cutty Sark (DLR)
Further reading: Leo Hollis, The Stones of London: A History in Twelve Buildings, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011
NearbyFan Museum