September 2016

  • New exhibition tells the story of how the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital was created
  • Rare opportunity to see Thornhill’s preparatory sketches for these spectacular baroque murals
  • Display will include three recently-conserved Thornhill drawings on loan from the National Maritime Museum
  • Exhibition marks beginning of major project to conserve the paintings

A new exhibition exploring the life of the British decorative artist Sir James Thornhill and his masterpiece – the Painted Hall at Greenwich (painted between 1708 and 1727) – is to open next month at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery. The exhibition, curated by the Old Royal Naval College, explores the story of the commission through numerous preparatory sketches made by the artist, including rarely-seen original drawings on loan from the National Maritime Museum. ‘A Great and Noble Design’ coincides with the start of a major conservation project on this extraordinary cycle of baroque mural paintings. A fully-illustrated catalogue of sketches has been produced to accompany the display.

The three original drawings in the exhibition include an early design for the Lower Hall ceiling that demonstrates the artist’s ability to create extraordinarily complex compositions while keeping hold of an overarching visual narrative. A sketch of George I and his family for the Painted Hall’s highly theatrical west wall, and a study for one of the Lower Hall ceiling’s many allegorical figures – modelled on a Greenwich Hospital pensioner – are also to be shown. As well as offering a rare opportunity to see these beautiful drawings at first hand, the exhibition will explain who Thornhill was and place him within his wider artistic context.

Accompanying the exhibition will be a new catalogue of the drawings to further illuminate the story of the Painted Hall's design and execution.

Anya Matthews, exhibition curator and Research Curator for the Painted Hall, said: “As work gets underway to conserve Thornhill’s Greenwich masterpiece, it is exciting to be able to consider his preparatory sketches for this complex cycle of paintings together for the first time. Thornhill was a highly-skilled draughtsman and mural painter but he is too little known today. We hope this exhibition, and the associated catalogue of drawings, will help raise the profile of a talented artist who was highly regarded by his contemporaries.”

Will Palin, Conservation Director at the Greenwich Foundation, said: “Thornhill emerges from this fascinating study as an artist of supreme skill and confidence, who was able successfully to negotiate the twists and turns of a commission spanning two decades and reigns of several monarchs. Thornhill’s rarely seen preparatory sketches hit us like a blast of fresh air, displaying astonishing freedom and self-assurance. If you are seeking a blueprint for the artist’s prodigious talent, this is surely where to look.”

The exhibition heralds the start of the Painted Hall Project, an ambitious programme of cleaning and conservation supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Over 2 years, a team of conservators will work on 3,400 square meters of painted surface, bringing new life and vibrancy to paintings obscured by decades of deterioration. A specially-designed scaffold will be used, to which thousands of visitors will have access from spring 2017. For the first time in 50 years it will be possible to view Thornhill’s extraordinary ceiling paintings up close. The project is due for completion in January 2019.

The ORNC is still seeking £2m to enable it to reach its £8m target and fully fund the project. The public can support their effort by ‘sponsoring a square foot’.

The Old Royal Naval College would like to thank the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting the Painted Hall Conservation Project, which includes the exhibition; the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art for funding the role of our Research Curator, Dr Anya Matthews; the University of Greenwich for hosting this exhibition and Dr Richard Johns for his help and advice.

'A Great and Noble Design'

The Stephen Lawrence Gallery,
University of Greenwich,
10 Stockwell Street,
SE10 9BD

Opening Dates & Times:
Tuesday 13 September to Friday 28 October 2016; Tuesday to Friday, 11am to 5pm; Saturday, 11am to 4pm

Free tours to the exhibition will leave from the Old Royal Naval College visitor centre at 12 noon, 1.45pm and 3.15pm on days of opening.

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