The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College reopens in March after a two year conservation project, which has brought the interior back to life, writes Laura Burgoine…

The UK’s answer to the Sistine Chapel, the Painted Hall is a 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. Between 2017 and 2018 an accessible observation deck gave over 80,000 visitors the opportunity to observe the conservators at work.

Its reopening is part of a major transformation project by Hugh Broughton Architects that will also see the reopening and restoration of the King William Undercroft beneath the Painted Hall, which will now house a new café, shop and interpretation gallery, The Sackler Gallery.

Chief Executive of the Old Royal Naval College Angela McConville said the conservation is “sensational”. “The results have even surprised the team who already knew it would be spectacular,” Angela told the Weekender. “It was nerve wracking for them and took six weeks to take the scaffolding out but it looks stunning.”

The ground-breaking project to clean and conserve the paintings started in 2016. It was one of the largest open access conservation projects in Europe. 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.

Chief Executive of the Old Royal Naval College Angela McConville

A film crew was on site to capture the finished project on film. “Once we open to the public, we’ll have less opportunity for filming because we want to prioritise visitor access,” Angela said.
The reopening of the Painted Hall sees the introduction of a new visitor experience at the Old Royal Naval College. Visitors can take a guided or self-guided tour of the extensive site, setting off from the newly refreshed Visitor Centre and access into the Painted Hall. The tour will take in all aspects of Wren’s riverside masterpiece including the famous Water Gate, Grand Square and the Chapel, and includes access into the Skittle Alley (a normally ‘limited access’ area of the site).

The Painted Hall experience also includes a new multimedia guide providing an informative introduction to the paintings, with 60 minutes of content available. Live talks led by an expert team of staff and volunteers throughout the day will also help to bring the paintings to life, alongside a collection of exquisite touch objects inspired by characters and items depicted on the ceiling which visitors will be able to get up close to and try on. These include a replica of King William’s crown and cloak, Athena’s shield with Medusa, and the red cap of liberty, symbolic of freedom in William’s Hand.

“This project has created a lot of excitement. 80,000 people came to see the Painted Ceiling while it was being conserved, which shows there’s a tremendous public appetite for getting up close to projects,” Angela said.

“We’re ready now for the great reveal,” she continued. “We’ll let the hall speak for itself. The view of the team was that the sublime experience of going from the King William Undercroft to the hall is sensational.”

The lost baroque undercroft –once a club room for Naval officers- is now a café and shop. “The master plan was to bring the space into purposeful use. We’ve restored it to its original form.”
“This is a magnificent place that belongs to the people of Greenwich. We invite them to come and see it as their place.”

The Painted Hall and King William Undercroft reopen on March 23 at the Old Royal Naval College, King William Walk, SE10 9NN. Admission: £12 adult, £8.50 student and concession, free for under 16s. Every first Wednesday of the month is ‘pay as you wish.’