September 2016 | William Palin, Director of Conservation

This month marks a new and exciting chapter in the history of the Painted Hall, the jewel the crown of the Old Royal Naval College.

The Hall, dubbed ‘ the Sistine Chapel of the UK’ for its beautiful interior featuring vast baroque murals by Sir James Thornhill, has amazed and delighted visitors to Greenwich for 300 years. During this long history the fragile painted surfaces have suffered - smoke and dirt has built up on the surfaces, and varnish layers have fractured under the effects of heat and humidity. A trial clean of the west wall in 2012 (Phase I of the project) showed the transformational effects conservation work could achieve. As the dirt was carefully removed, the colour and vibrancy of Thornhill’s work was restored. Spurred on by this success, the Greenwich Foundation then set its sights on conserving the remaining 40,000sq ft of painted surface. 

Now, after years of meticulous planning and energetic fundraising (given a major boost by the award of a £3.2m from the Heritage Lottery Fund), the Painted Hall is ready for the most comprehensive makeover in its history. Over a period of about two years, under the direction of expert conservators Stephen Paine and Sophie Stewart, every inch of decorated surface will be lovingly cleaned and conserved. Hand in hand with the work of the conservators will be a programme of new environmental interventions and controls aimed at drastically slowing any future deterioration of the paintings. Lastly, when the project is complete, visitors will start their journey in a new visitor centre within the restored King William Undercroft, where the baroque architecture of Wren and Hawksmoor will be revealed for the first time in over a century.

First things first, however. My first challenge, and that of the project team (led by Hugh Broughton Architects) is to ensure that the space is ready for our conservators to start work. This involves the building of a monumental scaffolding, rising the full height of the Vestibule and extending the length and breadth of the Lower Hall. So, at 5pm on 25 September, the Painted Hall will close its doors to the public and, the next morning, the scaffolders will start work.

Whilst the scaffolding is being erected (a period of about 5 months), the Hall will be closed completely, but come April 2017 we will re-open for a year to allow the public access to the scaffolding for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stand a few inches beneath Thornhill’s masterpiece, observe the conservation work underway and learn more about how the original work was executed.

The public access part of the project is hugely exciting, but also logistically challenging. For a start, the scaffolding will not only need to be able to cope safely with 100 visitors standing on its top deck at any one time, but also ensure that they can get up there (and back down to floor level) safely. For this, two wide staircases and a lift have been incorporated into the design and a visitor route into the Hall (factoring in an induction section) has been devised. Staff and volunteers will guide groups of 20 people at a time, receiving training from our conservators and other members of the design team so they feel confident talking about the project. Handling objects and occasional talks from conservators will add to the fun.

The scaffold tours are just one element in an ambitious programme of public engagement set out in our Activity Plan and covering dozens of learning projects, partnerships, collaborations and events. One of the first of these will be our exhibition A Great and Noble Design which opens at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, University of Greenwich on Tuesday 13 September 2016. The exhibition, organised by our research curator Dr Anya Matthews, will bring together original sketches and designs by Thornhill to give a unique insight into how he developed and executed his designs for the Painted Hall.

So, exciting times ahead (and few hiccups too I imagine). I hope you’ll follow us on our journey via this blog and the many photographs and films which will accompany this project on the ORNC website.

Excited by the prospect of scaffolding tours? Register your interest here.

Find out more

Download a map of the ORNC >