Visit to the Painted Ceiling Greenwich

Thu 8th February 2018 at 11.00 - 15.00

We visited the Old Naval College in Greenwich to see the restoration work on the Painted Ceiling

The Painted Hall at the Old Naval College in Greenwich was the destination for our Club trip on Thursday 8th February. Detailed directions had been supplied by Paul Kershaw and everyone arrived on the dot, ready to be kitted out in hard hats and soft vests. The ceiling of the Painted Hall is currently undergoing a once in a hundred year restoration to remove years of dirt and damaged varnish from the artwork and conserve it for generations to come. A platform has been erected 60 feet up, six feet below the ceiling and fills the whole space so that once you ascend you don't feel the height. Our initial briefing included a synopsis of the history of the hall, which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1698, and originally intended as a dining room for the naval veterans housed at the Royal Hospital.

The artist James Thornhill was relatively unknown at the time and therefore "affordable" and he began his commission to decorate the Hall in 1708. His remit was to include as many references as possible to the importance of the navy in Britain's fortunes. He seized the opportunity to make political statements through references to Greek mythology, Christian allegory and traditional symbolism. King William and Queen Mary are depicted enthroned in heaven with Peace handing an olive branch to William. He in turn hands the red cap of liberty to the kneeling figure of Europe. Below William's foot, clutching a broken sword, is the defeated French King Louis XIV. Zodiac signs, seasons and winds, references to time, battles, ships, wars, navigation and astronomy all appear. Queen Anne and her husband George of Denmark are saluted by Victory. The West wall features the new royal family from Hanover in Germany with George I surrounded by his children and grandchildren while his wife is said to be under the carpet with only her hand vaguely visible! After nineteen years of laborious decoration, painted directly on to the dry plaster and working on what must have been very precarious scaffolding at the time, the Painted Hall was considered far too ornate for the original purpose and was instead to become one of the first tourist attractions of its day.

Eighteen members of our Club stood just six feet below the ceiling and were able to view the artwork very closely, whilst being treated to an excellent presentation by our guide. We witnessed the damage from layers of varnish, dirt, smoke and pollution. We saw restorers at work gently removing the dirt without damaging the delicate paint and heard that some thirty years ago, restoration had involved repainting over damage, inconceivable now. The artwork will be protected for future generations, with varnish that can easily be removed if technology should bring better methods of protection in the future. At the end of the tour and removal of our hard hats and gear, we made our way to the Old Brewery for an excellent lunch before going our separate ways.

This was a real once in a lifetime experience and I long to go back at the end of the two year restoration to see the Painted Ceiling in its full glory. Sincerest thanks to Paul Kershaw for making our visit possible and such a success.

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