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At The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

February 9, 2014
by the gentle author

Water Gate at Greenwich

When Queen Mary commissioned Christopher Wren in 1694 to build the Royal Hospital for Seamen, offering sheltered housing to sailors who were invalid or retired, she instructed him to “build the Fabrick with Great Magnificence and Order” and there is no question his buildings at Greenwich fulfil this brief superlatively. On a bright February morning, you may discover yourself the only visitor – as I did last week – and stroll among these august structures as if they existed solely for your pleasure in savouring their ingenious geometry and dramatic spatial effects.

Since the fifteenth century, the Palace of Pleasaunce commanded the bend in the river here, where Henry VIII was born in 1491 and Elizabeth I in 1533. Yet Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House built for Anne of Denmark and the words ‘Carolus Rex’ upon the eastern extremity of the Admiral’s House, originally begun in 1660 as a palace for Charles I, are the only visible evidence today of this former royal residence abandoned at the time of the English Civil War.

It was Wren’s ingenuity to work with the existing buildings, sublimating them within the seamless unity of his own grandiose design by replicating the unfinished fragment of Charles’ palace to deliver magnificent symmetry, and enfolding Inigo Jones’ house within extended colonnades. The observant eye may also discern a dramatic overstatement of scale in architectural details that is characteristic of Nicholas Hawskmoor who was employed here as Wren’s Clerk of Works.

From 1705, the hospital for seamen provided modest, wood-lined cabins as a home-from-home for those who had spent their working lives at sea, reaching as many as two-thousand-seven-hundred residents at its peak in 1814, until superceded in 1869 by the Royal Naval College that left in 1995. Today the University of Greenwich and Trinity School of Music occupy these lofty halls but, in spite of its overly-demonstrative architecture, this has always been a working place inhabited by large numbers of people and the buildings suit their current purpose sympathetically .

The Painted Hall is the  tour-de-force of this complex, guaranteed to deliver a euphoric experience even to the idle visitor. Here the Greenwich Pensioners in their blue uniforms ate their dinners until James Thornhill spent eighteen years painting the walls and ceiling with epic scenes in the classical style celebrating British sea power and it was deemed too grand for anything but special occasions. Yet down below, the home-made skittles alley brings you closer to the domestic lives of the former residents – who once enjoyed fierce after-dinner contests here using practice cannon balls as bowling balls.

Exterior of the Painted Hall

The Chapel

King William Court

King William Court

The Admiral’s House was originally built as a residence for Charles I. Abandoned in the Civil War, Queen Anne commissioned Wren to rehabilitate the unfinished palace as part of his design for the Royal Hospital for Seaman which opened in 1705

Inspired by the Elgin marbles, the elaborate pediment in Coade stone is a tribute to Lord Nelson

Exterior of the Painted Hall

Pump and mounting block in Queen Anne Court

The chapel was completed to Wren’s design in 1751 and redesigned by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart in 1781

Plasterwork by John Papworth

Queen Anne Court

In the Painted Hall

Begun in 1708, Sir James Thornhill’s murals in the Painted Hall took nineteen years to complete

Man with a flagon of beer from Henry VIII’s Greenwich Palace

Man with a flask of gin from Henry VIII’s Greenwich Palace

The Skittles Alley of the eighteen-sixties, where practice cannon balls serve as bowling balls

Entrance to the Old Royal Naval College

The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, is open daily 11:00 – 5:00 Admission Free

7 Responses leave one →
  1. February 9, 2014

    Sir Christopher Michael Wren was a genius, no question. Today’s architects should learn more from him. That would be very helpful!

    Love & peace

  2. Julie O permalink
    February 9, 2014

    Stunning photographs and good to read about the history of the building. Feel a trip to Greenwich coming on.

  3. February 10, 2014

    Dear Gentle Author, what a wonderful artist you are to take such beautiful photographs of magnificent archicture on the lovliest of sunlit winter mornings. Your work is much appreciated and brings back happy memories of the few short months I spent in London in 1965.

  4. February 10, 2014

    Brought back so many happy memories of the day I spent there. We took the boat from Westminiter Pier. View of London from the Thames was enchanting and then to arrive at Greenwich. Both the chapel and painted hall are so filled with uplifting beauty. I recall the painted list of contributors to the hospital, a who is who of the 17th century, early 18th century.
    Wren was a magnificent architect. London is all that much greater for his many contribututions.
    Thanks for bringing me back to happy memories in the midst of my work day in California.

  5. February 11, 2014

    I made a special point of visiting here on 21st October 2005, Guess why 🙂

    Lovely post beautifully illustrated; you certainly set a high for we mere mortals to follow

  6. David Sankey permalink
    February 12, 2014

    I have worked there several times with my colleague, Julian Bowsher (who has done far more). Curiosities included working on the site of a nuclear reactor, that had remained throughout the period of “Nuclear Free Greenwich” , below which were some old brick cess pits. Also, in a not-unrelated vein, I dug out the cess pit of Sir John Vanbrugh (near the east gate). And beneath the floor boards of the (now) Trinity Laban School of Music, we dug up an old whale bone rib that had been used as a portable workbench, with cut marks in it. We also found an 18th-c graffito scratched into a pane of glass. Julian went on to uncover the chapel of the old Royal Palace .

  7. April 16, 2019

    Thank you GentleAuthor yet again for bringing back memories.My 21st birthday party was held in the King Charles block during the three years my husband Ian was on a course at the colledge,many a sunday lunch was enjoyed in the painted hall ,skittles after.The end of term balls were not to be missed. One of the highlights was when Ian got together five of his term mates and they formed an athletics team for the annual Southern Command event in Portsmouth AND WON, beating establishments like Collingwood.Great days.

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