Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Painted Hall Project

The Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich has what is considered one of most impressive and important baroque interiors in Europe. Originally built at the instigation of Queen Mary II, it formed part of the Royal Hospital for Seamen which was intended to offer care to sailors invalided out of the navy.The Hospital was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, and was built on the site of the Palace of Placentia, more often known as Greenwich Palace, which had been the birthplace of Henry VIII and his daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I.

The Painted Hall itself was originally intended to be the dining hall for the inhabitants but from the start it was felt to be too grand by the pensioners themselves, who preferred to eat in more humble surroundings. It very quickly became a space for ceremonial occasions and other special functions but was also an early "tourist" attraction, open to paying visitors! In 1806, the lying in state of Admiral Lord Nelson took place in the Painted Hall, following his death at the battle of Trafalgar. Huge crowds queued to view the body over a three day period before he was taken to his State funeral and internment in St Paul's Cathedral.

The decoration of the Hall was carried out by James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726. For this the agreed payment was £3/square yard for the ceiling and £1.00/square yard for the walls. However, when it came to actual payment, there were the inevitable delays and disagreements with those holding the purse strings! Eventually, Thornhill received a total payment of £6,685.00. This was a princely sum in the early 18th Century but when looked at a little more deeply does seem a tad miserly. This was a 19 year project, during which he had provide his own materials and the scaffolding. Plus, as this was not a single handed operation, he had pay the team of assistants required to get the job done.

On the plus side, a prestigious commission like this also led to work from other sources.  During the period that he was working in the Painted Hall he also carried out a number of other important projects including a number of walls and ceilings at Chatsworth House, the grisaille  panels inside the  dome of St Paul's Cathedral and the ceiling of the New Council Chamber of the Guildhall in the City of London!

Also within the same period he opened a school of drawing (twice) where one of his pupils was William Hogarth who also later became Thornhill's son in law.

Oh yes, he was also a fine portrait painter and the Member of Parliament for Melcombe Regis in Dorset. This man was a seriously good at multitasking!

The painted ceiling is a massive and important work. It emphasises Britain's naval power and international trading success but also reflects the political, social and scientific achievements of the age. It is an incredible cocktail of around 200 contemporary, historical and allegorical figures, musical and scientific instruments, warships and weapons, and a pretty hefty chunk of the animal kingdom!

One of the problems with working on a project of this length was that things change. Thornhill had to keep on top of the shifts in political power and social values and, of course, changes in the monarchy. He was clearly a man who  knew which side his bread was buttered, so he frequently modified his design as the years went on. Britain went through a series of royal changes over the 19 years. Starting with the joint monarchs William III and Mary II, followed by Queen Anne and finally George I. He made sure that they were all well presented in a respectful and flattering manor, unlike Louis XIV who is shown being trampled under King William's foot!

This political tiptoeing paid off when, on 2nd May 1720, he was knighted by King George I, the first British artist to receive such an honour.

I have to be honest here, and admit that I didn't know anything about James Thornhill before I started researching this article. Why is his name not mentioned in the same breath as Constable or Turner? Perhaps it is because the majority of his great works grace walls and ceilings rather than canvas but, whatever the reason, he deserves more recognition.

The Painted Hall is currently part way through a major project. The emphasis is on cleaning and conservation, rather than restoration. The plaster is in remarkably good condition, with very few cracks, all of which seem to be minor and easily stabilised. The painting itself is also in very good shape, the real problem being the various layers of varnish that have been applied over the years. Darkened and crazed in some areas. As much as is possible, it will be cleaned and treated sympathetically, without disturbing the actual painted surface.

Until September 2017, you have the once in a lifetime opportunity to get up close and personal with the ceiling of the lower hall. Measuring 15 by 30 metres, it towers over 18 metres above floor level. The extraordinary scaffolding (around 7 miles of tubing and weighing roughly the same as the Space Shuttle........apparently!) enables you to get within touching distance of this amazing art work. To be honest, the majority of the detail and 18th century symbolism would be beyond the comprehension to most of us in the 21st century but, fortunately, the wonderful guides are there to help you through this visual minefield. Plus you get to wear a hi viz waistcoat and a hard hat. What more could you want?

It is a fascinating and beautiful piece of British history and all of the money raised through ticket sales goes into the conservation fund, so you also get that warm feeling , knowing that you have done your bit towards preserving this treasure for future generations to enjoy.

Check out Janeslondon's post on the Ceiling Tour here, it also includes a good tip of where to eat if you are visiting Greenwich!

More photographs in my Flickr album here.