GLT’s Keeley Rodgers has a lie down at the newly restored Painted Hall, the centrepiece of The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. 

You’d be hard pushed to find many attractions where you’re actively encouraged to lie down on a comfy bed. But at the Painted Hall in the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, it’s really the only way to take in its true beauty.

Walking up the steps into the centre of the hall, I’d challenge anyone to not gasp in wonder. From the incredibly detailed painting of William III and Mary II, the founders of the Royal Hospital, to the intricate representations of liberty and peace alongside the poignant depiction of John Worley, one of the naval ‘pensioners’, the ceiling takes your breath away.

It recently reopened to the public following a major two-year makeover costing almost £9 million. After years of decay, the efforts of the conservation team have meant that it has been preserved for generations to come, apparently it won’t need any major work done now for about 100 years. 

“It’s known as the Sistine Chapel of the north”, our guide Isabel informs us, as we make our way into the Lower Hall – the main room, “and I think you’ll agree it’s pretty marvellous.”

Taking us through the history of the Painted Hall, which is the centrepiece of the Old Royal Naval College, Isabel takes us back to 1705 when the dining room (designed by Sir Christopher Wren) was finished. Two years later, a little-known painter Sir James Thornhill was commissioned to paint the ceiling – I wonder if he knew what significance his work would have centuries later. He did, however, have an insight into future generations to come – with a message about funding the building, one that is still as relevant today as it was then.

Painted Hall, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Visitors make use of the ‘day beds’ to look up at the ceilings.

Isabel explains: “Thornhill was a master of Trompe L’oeil – or trick of the eye, in creating that 3D effect” as she directs our gaze to the figures gracing the doors around the staircase.

The painting, which covers some 4,000 square metres and includes around 200 figures, took 19 years to complete and tells the story of Britain’s triumphant naval power. And way back then, just as today, tourists flocked from far and wide to see his masterpiece, unsurprisingly considered one of the finest Baroque interiors in the UK.

“Instead of having their meals in the dining hall, the naval pensioners turned tour guides to show people around; and the attraction has only increased over the centuries.”

Heading through to the Upper Hall, which provides the theatrical finale, we’re in for even more surprises with the mysterious ‘hand under the carpet’, a story in its own right, and a selfie of creator Thornhill who is apparently asking for payment for his work. He was reportedly only given £635 for the work initially and refused to remove the scaffolding until he received full payment; by the end of the project he had earnt £6,685 (a huge sum then).

But more than the payment, the work projected Thornhill to artistic fame. You may recognise his other work at St Paul’s Cathedral (he painted the dome), the hall at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and the chapel ceiling at Queen’s College in Oxford.

Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Source: ORNC

More than a million visitors head to the Old Royal Naval College each year.

Referencing the National Lottery funded conservation project, involving painstaking work to repair cracks and clean the painting, Isabel tells our group that they even found gravy stains on some of the walls along with cigarette stains – reminders of its previous life, a far cry from the transformation we see today.

Described as one of London’s hidden gems, I’m not sure it will remain so for much longer – striking, powerful and moving, it only adds to the appeal of Historic Greenwich. I’d highly recommend it as the finale of your tour around the site, which includes the Grand Square, Skittle Alley and the Nelson Room. It’s worth every moment of neck craning and more – I don’t know how Johnny Depp managed to look straight ahead when he was dragged through the Painted Hall for a scene in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Group bookings

While entrance to The Old Royal Naval College is free, you’ll need a ticket for the Painted Hall which comes with a multimedia guide and a guided/self-guided tour of Wren’s riverside masterpieces including the famous Water Gates, Grand Square and Chapel . An online group booking discount is available for those of 10 or more and enquiries can be made for special food and drink packages. 

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