Photos by ORNC

The Painted Hall in Greenwich is literally that – a painted hall.  But this hall is in a 300 year old building designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the paintings compared to Michelangelo, and a stairway takes a small team of conservators up to the ceiling where they are conserving those paintings for the first time in half a century, writes Michael Holland.

It was Mary II who, on seeing British sailors returning home from war maimed and often destitute, ordered a hospital where they would be cared for.  The Painted Hall became the dining room where the invalided Greenwich Pensioners would have their breakfast, dinner and tea until the Crown realised they could rent the space out for special functions and the old sailors could eat in the undercroft below…

Wren didn’t live to see his wonderful Royal Naval College buildings completed, but his apprentice was Hawksmoor, who went on to build some fantastic churches in London, and he made sure the job was finished properly.

The conservation of The Painted Hall has almost finished, with the final, and most painstaking section, being the ceiling.  Visitors are allowed to get up close to Sir James Thornhill’s Baroque murals by guided tours of the ceiling artwork, that bring to life the allegorical, mythological and historical characters found there: the gods, the Royals and the scientists of the day, some with intricate detail that cannot be seen from ground level sixty feet below.  And, amazingly, you can see the naughty graffiti left by past conservators, marking their territory, as it were…

The hour long tours give a real feel for the hard work involved, and is supported by the social history of the early 18th century that adds another aspect to the experience.  We learnt that they ordered one perpetually drunken sailor to sit for Thornhill every day for three months while he painted him, as a way to keep him sober.  Once the painting was finished he was straight back on the booze and once more frequenting the 88 pubs in Greenwich village!  We also discovered  that the youngest invalid seaman there was just 12 years old. He had been at sea since he was 10, became sick, got admitted to the hospital and passed away two years later.  And as for the cheating queen who got ‘swept under the carpet’!

The conservation will be complete by the end of September and the work will last for a hundred years, so seeing this amazing artwork up close is really a once in a lifetime experience.

Thursday evening tours now have an added bonus of wine tasting with the sommeliers at The Old Brewery, which is a nice way to finish such an interesting event.

Pre-book lift access if needed.

Old Royal Naval College, King William Walk, Greenwich, SE10 9NN.  Daily 10am – 4pm at 20 minute intervals. Admission: Adults £11, Child £5.50 Wine tasting tour £20.  Phone: 020 8269 4799