Last month Dan and I were invited to a celebratory dinner in the magnificent Painted Hall of Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College. The college itself is architecturally stunning with the Painted Hall being a gorgeous pearl inside and when the space is lit by candlelight the ambiance feels very rich and Old World.
Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, it was originally intended as a dining hall for the naval pensioners who lived there at the Royal Hospital for Seamen. Described as ‘the Sistine Chapel of the UK’, the walls and ceiling were painted by Sir James Thornhill between 1708 and 1727 and the Painted Hall is recognized as the greatest (and at a stunning 5,683 square feet also the largest) figurative painting in England.
Using symbolism, Thornhill’s work delivers powerful messages on such subjects as the monarchy, religion, maritime power, navigation and trade. The theme of the lower hall ceiling demonstrates the importance of naval power to the fortunes of the nation and the triumph of peace and liberty over tyranny, paying tribute to King William and Queen Mary seated in glory in the middle of the central oval. If the Painted Hall itself wasn’t impressive enough, the vestibule features one of the most spectacular domed ceilings in London rising 90ft above the entrance.
I didn’t know this at the time or I would have searched for it but Thornhill included a self portrait of himself on the west wall in the upper hall gesturing towards his great composition with his palette, scroll, and paintbrushes painted beside him. Knighted in 1729 he was the first English artist to receive the honor of knighthood.
Want to check out the Painted Hall for yourself? The Old Royal Naval College is open everyday from 10-5pm with guided talks also available daily at 11:45, 12.45, 14:45 & 15:45. The Painted Hall will be undergoing three years of conservation and cleaning work to restore the remaining 40,000 square feet of Thornhill’s masterpiece starting in 2016. You can be a part of the conservation appeal by sponsoring a square foot for £75. If interested, check out the details here.