I’ve been wanting to write this post about Thornhill’s Painted Hall in Greenwich since I visited back in April but what better time to post it than on the day of the master himself, James Thornhill’s Birthday. Thornhill was an 18th century English painter but is sadly relatively unknown, despite completing large-scale works such as the Painted Hall and the paintings on the inside of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. The Painted Hall Ceiling Tour in Greenwich is the perfect opportunity to see some of Thornhill’s work up close.
Back in April, I went on the Painted Ceiling Tour as a birthday present and honestly, it was the best day and I couldn’t recommend it enough. As the ceiling is currently being conserved, the Old Royal Naval College is also allowing visitors to go up the scaffolding to see the ceiling up close for themselves. The ceiling hasn’t been cleaned for over a hundred years so the project is revealing new designs and colours under the layers of grime. The tour is led by an incredibly knowledgeable volunteer who takes you through the fully conserved West Wall and Upper Hall, and then around the current conservation site of the lower hall ceiling. The guide helps to contextualise the conservation work and also adds the stories and excitement to the complex allegories that adorn the walls and ceiling. Visit the website here for more information about the tour and booking.
Thornhill received the commission for the lower hall in 1707, after completing one of his first interiors, a staircase for the Duke of Devonshire, a Director of the Royal Naval Hospital, who recommended him for the job. With the help of his preparatory sketches, Thornhill painted his design directly onto the plaster of the ceiling, which he completed in 1712. Thornhill then reapplied to carry out a similar ceiling painting on the upper hall and vestibule in 1727. After securing the commission, Thornhill completed the work alongside his studio, working on the principal design and individual figures himself, with specialist painters tackling other areas of the work. Some other artists included Antoine Monnoyer, a flower painter who painted the garlands in the upper hall and Dietrich Ernst Andreae who painted the majority of the west wall. Thornhill was paid £1 per yard for the walls and £3 per yard for the ceiling, amounting to the total of £6,685 over the course of the 19 years it took Thornhill to complete the commission.
The Painted Hall was originally intended as an eating area for the Greenwich Pensioners from the Royal Hospital. However, soon after its completion the hall became a tourist attraction and was rarely used as a dining room except on high days and holidays, such as the King’s Birthday and accession. In 1824, the hall opened as a National Gallery of Naval Art; George IV donated 38 naval paintings and portraits of Royal Navy officers which were displayed throughout the hall. The gallery saw over 50,000 visitors every year until its closure in 1936 when the collection moved to the new National Maritime Museum across the road. The hall then became the Officers’ mess for the Royal Naval College. Today the hall is primarily a tourist attraction, especially with the current conservation work and tours; it has also been used in films such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Victoria and Abdul.
The paintings feature a range of themes, including royal patronage and maritime success. There are so many different elements to all of the paintings and its difficult to talk about it all in one post, so I’ve picked a few photos from the different parts of the hall which will hopefully illustrate the beauty of the piece. The first section above is from the West Wall and portrays George I with his family and virtues. The West Wall was created between 1718 and 1726, celebrating the recently arrived Hanoverian King. The painting aimed to signify the benefits of the Hanoverians who would bring peace, plenty and naval victory to the country in a new Golden Age. In the image, you can see George I to the right, resting upon a globe; he is surrounded by extended family members. On the left are the allegories of plenty and peace, hinting at the success George would supposedly bring.
This is a small image of a section of the Lower Hall ceiling, as you were so close to this part of the painting it was difficult to take good photos of all the elements you were guided through in the tour. This one stood out to me as it is of the Spirit of Architecture, holding Sir Christopher Wren’s designs for the Royal Hospital. This acted as a reminder to the public that the building of the Chapel opposite was still incomplete.
This final image is of the Upper Hall Ceiling and acts as a celebration of British Naval supremacy. It is in this work we also see Antoine Monnoyer, the flower painter’s work come into fruition, alongside Thornhill’s skilled portrayal of imaginative, decorative architecture. In the centre are Queen Anne and her husband George of Denmark, surrounded by allegories. It’s also interesting to note the pictorial connection with the figures resting on clouds, which creates a continuation from the West Wall below.
Hope you enjoyed this post! I really loved going on the tour of the painted ceiling and also loved exploring Greenwich too, click here to read about my visit to the Queen’s House.