Since 2012 conservators have been working to restore the Baroque muraled ceiling of Painted Hall at Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. It is an ongoing project. There are more than 40,000 square feet of painted surface in need of attention. The ceiling was created between 1707 and 1726 by Sir James Thornhill whose work also adorns the inner dome at St Paul’s Cathedral. The murals celebrate the accessions to the throne of William III and Mary II in 1688 and George I in 1714, as well as the creation of the United Kingdom, and the emergence of Britain as a maritime power, during their reigns.
For over 300 years Thornhill’s ceiling has crowned the Wren-and-Hawksmoor-designed hall, overseeing its history, first as part of the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, then as a mess for officer cadets at the naval college that took over the campus in 1873. Admiral Lord Nelson lay in state beneath it when his body was brought home from the Battle of Trafalgar. The spot where his coffin rested is marked by a plaque on the floor.
To support restoration the foundation that operates the Old Royal Naval College is offering members of the public an opportunity to climb the scaffolding and observe the work of conservators up close. Over the summer I took a boat down the Thames to see it for myself.
Painted Hall stands opposite the matching Chapel building, halfway up the visto between the Water Gate and the Queen’s House. One enters into a nest of towering scaffolds. After ascending 67 steps to the observation deck, one finds oneself amazingly close to the ceiling, mere inches away. At this proximity the rich symbolism and hidden eccentricities of the work reveal themselves. As The Gentle Author writes in his essay on the ceiling, “It is the greatest mixed metaphor in London—here are figures representing rivers and some representing seasons, while others incarnate abstract notions like ‘peace’ and ‘fame.’ And there are portraits of kings and queens, and the astronomer royal, and the first inhabitant of the naval hospital, a bearded gentleman who warms his hands by the fire in the embodiment of ‘winter.’”
This last figure, John Worley, was an interesting character: an octogenarian (he lived to be 96) who had spent seven decades at sea. He remained sprightly in his dotage, apparently, as he was written up twice in the early records of the Hospital for drunkenness and disruptive behavior. It is likely that he was given the job of sitting for Thornhill to keep him out of trouble.
William and Mary are depicted at the center of the mural. Beneath King William’s foot is a figure representing “arbitrary power and tyranny,” based on Louis XIV of France, whom William had fought in the Nine Years War. Below them the Union Jack flies from the transom of a massive ship of the line.
The effect of the whole is to project a triumphant image of the Britain that was emerging from the turmoil of 1688: a confident, Protestant, thalassocracy.