After we’d finished our tour of the Cutty Sark, we wandered along the Thames the short distance to the watergate at the front of the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich. Originally the buildings housed the Royal Hospital for Seamen which was established in 1694 "for the relief and support of seamen and their dependants”. The Hospital closed in 1869 and in 1873 was taken over by the Royal Navy as a training college. The College closed in 1998 an today the site is largely occupied by the University of Greenwich.
The buildings were designed in English Baroque style by some of England’s greatest architects from the late 17th and early 18th Centuries – including Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor, John Vanbrugh and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart. The foundation stone was laid on 30th June 1696 and construction completed in 1751, although the first residents moved in to what was still a building site in 1705.
The dominant features are the two domes, designed by Wren and which look like miniature versions of the great Dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. The left hand dome (when viewed from the river) has a clock while the other has a clock like face that indicates the wind direction.
While we were wandering around the site I noticed that people were going in and out of doors just below the domes, so we thought we’d investigate. Walking up the steps and through the door under the right hand dome revealed an unexpected sight – a large hall with the walls and ceiling completely covered with murals. This was “The Painted Hall”.
The term “breathtaking” is a much overused cliché, but it’s the best way to describe the impact the room had on me when I walked through the door.
The wall and ceiling decorations, which are intended to pay tribute to British maritime power, cover 2612 square metres and were painted by an artist I’d never heard of before, James Thornhill . The hall was originally designed as the dining room for the Hospital’s residents, but very quickly it was decided it was “too good” for these retired seamen and became an early tourist attraction with visitors charged to enter and look at the murals.
As is often the case photographs don’t really do justice to the room and the sense of being immersed inside one giant painting.
The art isn’t really to my taste, but I had to admire the grandeur of the work and it certainly made an impact.
So afterwards what next? Well the obvious thing to do was to cross the courtyard and take a look at what was under the other dome.
After walking through a relatively plain entrance hall we were greeted by another sumptuously decorated hall, in this case the St Peter and St Paul Chapel.
According to the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) website the Chapel
was constructed by Thomas Ripley to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren, was the last major part of the Royal Hospital for Seamen to be built. Following a disastrous fire in 1779, it was redecorated by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart in the Greek revival style,
The Chapel ceiling was designed by the master plasterer John Papworth in a neo-classical design of squares and octagons. The intricate central ornaments were carved, rather than cast in moulds. It is plastered in light blue and cream following a Wedgewood-inspired colour scheme.
In the entrance hall there’s a memorial to the men and officers of the Franklin exhibition of 1845 who lost their lives searching for the “North West passage” through the ice of the Arctic.
Guides to the Painted Hall and the Chapel can be downloaded from the ORNC website.