The Painted Hall, Greenwich to Reopen After Two Year Conservation Project: Nine Things You Need to Know

The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich will reopen on 23 March 2019 after a two year National Lottery Funded conservation project which has brought its magnificent painted interior vividly back to life. Here’s nine things you need to know

  • The Painted Hall has been referred to as the ‘Sistine Chapel of the UK’ – its vast decorated interior, extending to 4,000 square metres, is the masterpiece of English baroque art. The £8.5-million conservation project, supported by a £3.1-million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), has reversed years of decay and conserved the Painted Hall for generations to come.
  • Its reopening is part of a major transformation project by Hugh Broughton Architects – with conservation advice from the College’s Surveyor of the Fabric, Martin Ashley Architects – that will also see the reopening of the King William Undercroft. Situated below the Painted Hall, the newly restored Undercroft space will now house a new café, shop and interpretation gallery, The Sackler Gallery.
  • 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 have deteriorated, with large areas of ‘blanching’ or whitening covering the surface and obscuring the detail. For two years, a small team of conservators have been working 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.
  • The conservation of the Painted Hall and the restoration of the Undercroft have been made possible thanks to generous funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), The Gosling Foundation Ltd, the Department for 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.
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IMAGE: Image: The Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich © Nikhilesh Haval