Will Palin, Conservation Director

08 December 2016

The Painted Hall, despite its harmonious appearance, has a complex evolutionary history, a history we are hoping to better understand as this project develops. The structure of the Hall was complete by 1705 but Thornhill did not begin his great painted scheme until 3 years later – and he did not begin work in the Upper Hall until 1718. So, during the first two decades of its life, the Hall would have looked startlingly different – with vast areas of wall bare of decoration.

The upper hall in the Painted Hall at the start of the Painted Hall Project

The upper hall today as conservation work begins

We know also that there were architectural changes to the interior of the Hall as Thornhill’s work got underway. The Upper Hall originally had a row of windows on the west wall - but these were covered up at some point prior to 1718, in response to Thornhill’s desire for a uninterrupted wall surface to take his grand composition celebrating the Hanoverian succession. The current phase of conservation work in the Upper Hall has also revealed scars of windows at the centre of the north and south walls (now covered by the grisaille panels). Were these windows originally open, or do these they simply reflect a design change during the construction of the Hall? Unfortunately very few of Hawksmoor’s drawings for the Painted Hall survive and those that do fail to shed light on this element of the design.

A hidden stone cornice

Another tantalising detail that has emerged during this early phase of conservation work is a rather delicate classical stone cornice at plinth level (pictured) hidden behind the current timber cornice. It is possible that this stone detail was the original finish of the Upper Hall and that the wooden box cornice with its much chunkier baroque detailing was added to allow Thornhill a surface on which to apply his decoration. The cornice (and the timber skirting below) continue on the same line of the identical trompe l’oeil versions on the west wall painting so it seems likely that they were part of the ‘infrastructure’ of Thornhill’s space. 

We hope that these and other mysteries will be resolved as the project develops. Each new discovery will help enrich our understanding of the history of this magnificent space and will also inform our visitor interpretation, including the section entitled ‘the many lives of the Painted Hall’ in our new visitor gallery.

Want to learn more? You can receive updates on conservation work in the Painted Hall by signing up to our mailing list.

Book a Painted Hall Ceiling Tour today


If you haven't already, now's the time to book one of our acclaimed Painted Hall Ceiling Tours. Ascend 60 feet and discover the secrets of London’s largest painted ceiling.

Book a tour today >

Find out more