The Painted Hall

The Painted Hall is the centrepiece of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren as a ceremonial dining room for what was then the new Royal Hospital for Seaman, the Painted Hall was completed in 1705. Its vast decorative scheme was painted by Sir James Thornhill, the first British artist to be knighted. Started in 1707, it took 19 years to complete. The paintings celebrate England’s naval power and mercantile prosperity, as well as its newly installed protestant monarchy. Successive monarchs William III and Mary II, Anne and George I join a cast of hundreds of figures, mythological, allegorical, historical and contemporary.

The scheme’s celebration of the English protestant monarchy was set against the perceived autocracy of predominantly Catholic Europe. The main section of the ceiling (the Lower Hall) features William III taking an olive branch from a figure representing peace and passing the ‘cap of liberty’ to the kneeling figure of Europe. At the same time the king tramples on a crouched figure representing arbitrary power and tyranny – a thinly veiled portrait of Louis XIV of France.

The late 17th and early 18th centuries were a time of great uncertainty in Europe, with competing powers sparring for control of the continent and grand alliances made between nations to prevent dominance by any one European state. The story presented in the Painted Hall is one of stability and prosperity in Britain, underpinned by the nation’s naval power and benign constitutional rule. The other section of the ceiling (the Upper Hall) honours Queen Anne whose reign oversaw the unification of Great Britain.

The ground-breaking project to clean and conserve the paintings started in 2016 under the supervision of specialist conservators Stephen Paine and Sophie Stewart. Since the last campaign of restoration in the 1950s the paintings had deteriorated, with large areas of ‘blanching’ or whitening covering the surface and obscuring the detail. For two years, a small team of conservators worked to stabilise and rejuvenate the paintings, with spectacular results. The colour, clarity and richness of the paintings can now be enjoyed, illuminated by a new state-of-the-art LED system. Meanwhile a range of new technologies have been introduced to stabilise the Hall’s environment and ensure the long-term preservation of the paintings.

The project was also one of the largest open-access conservation projects in Europe. Between 2017 and 2018 an accessible observation deck gave over 80,000 visitors the opportunity to observe the conservators at work. As the painted surfaces were cleaned, new details were uncovered that revealed how Thornhill planned and executed his vast work. Shadows of corrected details appeared behind later paint layers and large areas of beautifully detailed history painting emerged from behind dirt and decay. As many as 30 signatures from previous ‘restorers’ were studied at close quarters, including one indelicately placed on the bosom of Mary II, revealing 300 years of almost continuous cleaning.

A series of finely carved oak benches, made when the Hall served as an art gallery in the 19th century and removed 100 years ago, have been returned as part of a new collection of elegant furniture which will allow visitors to sit (or lie down) in comfort and experience the beauty and wonder of Thornhill’s masterpiece. To enrich the experience, visitors will have the choice of a multimedia guide, a printed guide or a tour by one of an expert team of guides. Two ‘treasure chests’ containing handling objects related to the ceiling will add a new tactile element to the visitor experience.

The King William Undercroft, a grandly proportioned vaulted space – mirroring the plan of the Painted Hall above and designed by Christopher Wren and his Clerk of Works, Nicholas Hawksmoor – has been lovingly restored to its original form. 20th-century additions, including part of a large modern kitchen, have been removed to reveal the majesty of the space and the beauty of the baroque architectural details. This space, originally used as a day-to-day dining room for the naval pensioners, now houses a shop, café and The Sackler Gallery where visitors will be able to learn about the history and meaning of Thornhill’s masterpiece, prior to ascending into the Painted Hall itself.

In the course of works to the Undercroft, two rooms from Henry VIII’s long-lost Greenwich Palace were unearthed beneath a concrete floor, including a cellar containing a series of unusual niches, which archaeologists believe may be ‘bee boles’ for the keeping of skeps (hive baskets) during the winter months when bee colonies hibernate. These remarkable finds have been incorporated into the interpretation area and will be on permanent display to visitors when the Painted Hall reopens. Greenwich Palace was the favoured royal palace of Henry VIII, who was born at Greenwich along with his daughters Mary I and Elizabeth I.

The conservation of the Painted Hall and the restoration of the Undercroft have been made possible thanks to generous funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, The Gosling Foundation Ltd, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, The Sackler Trust, Tony Hales CBE, Garfield Weston Foundation, The Foyle Foundation, Old Royal Naval College Chapel Fund, Celia and Edward Atkin CBE, City Bridge Trust, The Charles Skey Charitable Trust, Waring and Carmen Partridge Foundation and Natalie and Malcolm Pray, as well as a number of other generous individuals.