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At The Painted Hall In Greenwich

May 22, 2017
by the gentle author

Currently, there is a once in a lifetime chance to climb up and view James Thornhill’s astonishing painted ceiling at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich at close quarters. When you walk into Christopher Wren’s magnificent dining hall, you are confronted with an intricate silver structure of scaffolding filling the space and you ascend the staircase to enter another world. You discover yourself then suspended in the half-light of an arena tinged with a golden hue by the vast painting glowing overhead.

You crane your neck to make sense of the brushstrokes and, from the gloom, faces emerge peering back at you. Out of the depth of the shadows, figures become manifest where there was only miasma upon first glance. You are in the world of the gods and immortals. It is the greatest mixed metaphor in London – here are figures representing rivers and some representing seasons, while others incarnate abstract notions like ‘peace’ and ‘fame.’ And there are portraits of kings and queens, and the astronomer royal, and the first inhabitant of the naval hospital, a bearded gentleman who warms his hands by the fire in the embodiment of ‘winter.’

As you walk around with your eyes cast upwards, new images appear as others vanish generating an unavoidably surrealist experience. It is something like the disorientation of a dream or stumbling through a crowd drunk. There is no reference point to appreciate the relative scale of the figures hurtling towards you from heights above and the unexpected physicality of these larger than life bodies is startling when you find yourself confronted with a huge heaving cleavage or a monstrous pair of buttocks.

Fortunately, there are helpful guides on hand to show you photographs of the entire painting, thus permitting you to fit it all together in your mind and appease the prevailing confusion. They explain that once James Thornhill completed the murals in the dining hall, it was deemed too grand for the retired seaman who were the residents of the hospital and they were shunted off to eat their dinners in the undercroft instead. An alternative theory might be that this phantasmagoric vision with so much gratuitous nudity and chaotic action could hardly be conducive to the digestive process of the superannuated sailors who – at very least – would be in danger of contracting a stiff neck from gazing at the epic panoply overhead rather than contemplating their modest vittles in front of them.

Christopher Wren designed both the Royal Naval Hospital and St Paul’s Cathedral

James Thornhill’s next commission was to paint the interior of the dome at St Paul’s

King William

William & Mary

In 1797, a mischievous painter engraved his name on Queen Mary’s chest

Old Father Thames

Portrait of the first inhabitant of the Royal Naval Hospital in the guise of ‘winter”

John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, and his telescope

Flamsteed’s prediction of an eclipse in April 22nd 1715 was painted here over a year before the event

George I and descendants in the House of Hanover

James Thornhill’s self portrait

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At The Old Royal Naval College Greenwich

William Hogarth’s Murals at St Bartholomew’s Hospital

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    May 22, 2017

    The daubings are all very well, but my childhood obsession with Meccano inclines me to regard that scaffolding as the real masterpiece! Seriously, I wish I lived in London still – what an opportunity!

  2. May 22, 2017

    What wonderful views, how I would love to be able to climb up there and view them from close quarters. Valerie

  3. May 22, 2017

    Truly a magnificent ceiling its a must see, perhaps a once in a lifetime visit to soak up the past. A visitor centre of excellence now. I hope all the scaffolding is down before my visit although it aids that close up view. This old naval building has had many uses in Sam Pepys time C1660s. Sam was the chief naval administrator then and sometimes he walked to Greenwich from Seething Lane or by water taxi. Poet John ~ If the scaffolding is down I will take my binoculars

  4. Vicky permalink
    May 22, 2017

    I would definitely recommend a visit. You will be geared up with hat and hi-vis vest and climb the many steps, viewing the restorers as you pass. They are expecting this restoration to last 100 years.

  5. paul boucher permalink
    May 22, 2017

    Thank you Gentle Author for these truly wonderful close-ups of an out-of-reach masterpiece.

  6. May 22, 2017

    How wonderful to hear about this extensive restoration with insightful photos.
    So envious of those who live in the region.
    Thanks for this blast of optimism today!

  7. pauline taylor permalink
    May 22, 2017

    Thank you Gentle Author for giving us something magnificent to look at and to read about today, always a pleasure to learn about and to see paintings like this, but especially now when we all need a hefty dose of sanity to keep us from losing our marbles !

  8. Shawdian permalink
    May 22, 2017

    As someone who studies the life & works of Samuel Pepys, todays blog post is quite to one’s heart. I have stood in that room and dreamed.

  9. Su C. permalink
    May 22, 2017

    What a treat! We are headed to London Wednesday and were wondering what new there is to do, after having visited so many times. We’ve been to the College before, but happened there at graduation so the buildings were not open to the general public. Looking forward to this.
    Su C – California

  10. Sonia Bennett Murray permalink
    May 22, 2017

    Thank you for this article, and the pictures of these wonderful murals! Please let us know if they’ll be open to the public next year, as I’m planning to bring my daughter home to England in 2018 and would love to see them. I’m so glad the paintings are being restored – the efflorescence on Queen Mary’s portrait shows the need. Thanks again!

    Sonia in Biloxi, MS, USA

  11. David permalink
    May 23, 2017

    The ORNC building works were started in 1696 and completed in 1712 .

    Thornhills paintings were started in 1707 and completed in 1726

    Samuel Pepys health was failing by 1699 and he died in 1703 , so Sam would have seen very little of the buildings , and nothing of the Painted Hall

  12. February 25, 2018

    Memories. I remember many Sunday lunches,balls and Ladies Night dinners held under this wonderfull painted ceiling. when my husband Ian was on a three year course at Greenwich. My 21st birthday party was in the King Charles block with it’s wonderfull staircase and paintings,I hope the present students appreciate the surroundings they have the honour to use.

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