King William Walk
Greenwich SE10 9JF
Friday August 04 2017
When we visited the small exhibition giving the history of the Old Royal Naval College in the Visitors Centre we tried to tack on a visit to the actual college buildings which are usually open to the public – namely the Chapel and Dining Hall. The Chapel certainly was open but the Dining Hall is currently undergoing a major CONSERVATION (NOT restoration ) project. However you can still visit, advisedly by prior booking, for a guided tour of the ceiling complete with hard hat and high-vis jacket. That makes it sound a lot more exciting than it is as the scaffolding platform is very sturdy, wide and stable and the 67 steps are no worse than using the stairs when the escalators fail .
Just a reminder of the history in case you weren’t paying attention in November, not to be outdone by Charles II and his Royal Hospital for Army pensioners at Chelsea, William II’s wife Mary was keen to do the same for mariners but sadly died before the building was completed so some of the inscriptions we saw being conserved and cleaned today were her husband making sure her memory and intentions for the foundation were honoured.
The exterior of the building is truly magnificent and best viewed from the middle of the Thames – and that was Wren’s brief – to encompass the whole vista from top to bottom with the two arms or wings allowing the visitor to glimpse the already complete Queen Anne’s House halfway up the hill.
As for the inside, initially James Thornhill was a ‘cheap’ option as set against imported Italian workmen and apparently he was paid a £1 per square foot on the wall and £3 per sq foot on the ceiling. Out of this he paid any helpers and the materials. Unlike most Italian ceilings this is not a fresco but oil paint applied to a plastered ceiling. In fact all things considered (dining sailors eating by candle light, smoking and throwing their food around) the ceiling is in quite good shape. The remarkably few cracks will be restored; the varnish that has deteriorated cleaned and re-applied, and the darker areas cleaned to become more visible, but not to the extent that there will be ‘visibly brighter’ spots but to maintain the integrity of the whole art work.
In addition to explaining the aims of this very expensive conservation our guide Simon pointed out several ‘characters’ who certainly would not have been so evident from below.
Essentially the design consists of a large central oval where the most important people are and two semi-circular arches each with a ship ploughing the seas into which the key English rivers, as represented by their gods, flow. The perspective works in all directions: very cunning this. The rivers are all personified and come with their most famous products so the Severn with lampreys and the Tyne with coal. The not so subtle subtext being what a productive country we are. No comment.
The central oval is given over to the Royal Patrons surrounded by a variety of classical gods who double by portraying virtues that befit a reigning monarch – such as wisdom (Athena) or strength (Hercules –obvs.) More interestingly the guide pointed to a red cap which stood for Liberty (as seen on the French Revolutionaries) and the leg of William grinding the face of tyranny (Louis XIV) under his foot. Interesting as you assume the crowned heads of Europe might stand together but I suppose that the so-called Glorious Revolution (with the monarch ruling with the consent of Parliament) counted as relative ‘Liberty’ compared to Louis’s absolutism. There was also a difference of religion standing in the way and historically the French and English are rarely on the same page as friends…
Apart from the rivers there are references to the four elements and four seasons – I’m not sure where the others were but Winter showed the fine head which one could immediately see was that of a real person – indeed a seaman pensioner by the name of John Worley. He had a somewhat rowdy reputation so having him ‘sit’ for James Thornhill kept him out of trouble for a while.
James almost certainly employed others to do some of the ‘hack’ work but to be fair the standard is extremely high and while I would not go as far as saying , as one observer did, this is greater than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel , it is a great achievement an d the women all look a good deal more womanly than any Michelangelo ever achieved ( the Pieta excepted). The sailors who wined dined and smoked under this ceiling until 1998 certainly appreciated their charms.
Thornhill was encouraged to promote the nautical elements so down at ground level, in a more sombre grisaille, is a wealth of sea shells, anchors and ropes to adorn the sides and corners.
Once you have finished with the Painted Hall you are encouraged to cross the courtyard/quadrangle to have a look at the Chapel, beautifully free of scaffolding and with an equally impressive if very different ceiling, more rococo plasterwork. The building is beautifully proportioned with a well preserved floor and some impressive woodwork. Being a chapel there are memorials round the sides and entrance to both famous (John Franklin the North West Passage explorer) and forgotten mariners..
Greenwich is always a treat as Wren’s waterside building never disappoints but it was a particular treat to get up into the ceiling of the painted hall and appreciate its details at leisure.