July 2016 | Tom Ryley, Digital and Communications Officer

The Painted Hall is the spectacular centrepiece of the Old Royal Naval College, starring the huge lower hall ceiling, the largest painting in Europe, which will undergo conservation later this year. But less studied, and arguably more peculiar, is a pair of monochrome "Grisaille" panels hidden at the end of the hall.

Grisaille is the term for a painting executed in shades of grey or neutral colour - Gris is grey in French. This technique is sometimes used to imitate sculpture, and has a distinctly classical feel that aids telling stories about important historical events. Sir James Thornhill, the artist of the Painted Hall, was rather fond of the technique and also used it in his painting for the dome of St Paul's Cathedral.

Crucial to an understanding of these peculiar panels is the historical context in which they were painted. They commemorate the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when, opposed to the Catholic King James II, seven English peers wrote to the Protestant William of Orange, Prince of Holland, and invited him to depose their king and rule instead.

On the 5th of November 1688, William had landed in Torbay with a formidable army. His landing was incredibly lucky - particularly bad winds had prevented the larger Catholic fleet leaving the harbour. The "Protestant Winds", as they later became known, were hailed as a sign that God was on the side of William, dooming the Catholics just as they had doomed the Spanish Armada a century before.

Thornhill has worked to dramatise his depiction of the event with every trick he knows. The North and South panels compare William's arrival with the arrival of Julius Caesar, and employ plenty of mythological allegories and interesting details...

South Wall

William of Orange is landing in Torbay, signifying the beginning of the Glorious Revolution. The future king, dressed as a Roman emperor, is in the centre of the painting and is welcomed on shore by Britannia. According to Thornhill's writings, she is attended by Reasons of State and Love of her Country. Each of these rather laboured allegories seeks to justify the arrival of William and his right to rule for the country's betterment.

Above the Prince floats Jupiter, with his emblem of the eagle. Often representing a good omen, this rendition of the Roman god holds a scroll which translates as roughly "England Hopes".

Behind the Prince is Neptune and Amphitrite, God and Goddess of the sea, and, as Thornhill writes they are ‘giving up their Great Charge’. Having controlled the winds it looks very much like Neptune, with his finger pointing, has personally delivered William.

There is also something strange going on with the date of this event. William landed in England on the 5th of November-the day of the failed Catholic gunpowder plot. The year of the landing, 1688, marked the centenary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, another protestant triumph. Such a fortuitous alignment of dates encouraged the belief that Williams’s successful landing was a result of divine intervention. Sermons were preached up and down Britain and such would have been very much in the consciousness of people viewing this painting.

North Wall

All this glorification of William of Orange may seem a little odd, seeing as Thornhill painted the Upper Hall during the reign of George I. Yet the beginning of George I’s reign in many ways mirrors William’s. George I was a foreign, German prince, and was called in to rule the country. Unlike William’s, however, George’s arrival was highly unpopular, and there was large-scale unrest upon his arrival. By presenting George’s arrival as a second instance of William’s triumphal entry, Thornhill attempted to put a positive spin on the subject.

George I arrived for the first time in Britain at Greenwich. He arrived on a very foggy night, accompanied by two mistresses, no wife and 18 cooks. In the painting, however, the new king sits on a royal chariot with Peace on his right hand and Happiness below on his left. He is also led by Truth (with the light), Justice (with her scales), Religion (shown with an incense burner), and Liberty (with the cap).

A figure representing the Jacobean Rebellions – the uprisings of Catholics that plagued the first years of George’s reign –is depicted cowering at their feet.

St George is also shown on horseback trampling a Dragon (supposedly representing Catholicism), and his shared name with the monarch is intended to invoke comparison

Even Thornhill remarked on the extent of his artistic licence in his preliminary sketches for the wall – To have their faces and dresses as they really were” he stated, was “difficult… [furthermore] the Kings own dress was not graceful nor enough worthy of him to be transmitted into posterity.”

He continues that the painting evokes the event “as it should have been,” adding cynically: “rather than what it was”.

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