January 2013

As the first conservation of the Painted Hall in over 50 years gets underway, public offered rare close-up view of the paintings and the conservators at work.

It has been described by leading art critic Jonathan Jones as 'one of the most amazing interiors in Britain,' now the public are going to be able to see parts of Sir James Thornhill’s artwork in the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) at close quarters for the first time.

Supported by a £335,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), phase one of the Painted Hall conservation will take around 4 months. Throughout the period the public will have access to the 11m high scaffolding giving unique views of the Baroque paintings of the upper hall, along with the opportunity to see the specialist conservators at work. A series of tours and events will include introductions to the history of the Painted Hall and the artwork led by the ORNC’s expert Yeomen guides, access to a special platform from which to see the work in progress and Q&A sessions with the conservators.

The Painted Hall dates from a time when Britain was becoming a great naval power, and during the almost 20 years it took to complete the nation witnessed significant changes in both the monarchy and society. 'Sir James Thornhill’s paintings are a remarkable record of this rich period in our history,' says Brendan McCarthy, CEO of the Greenwich Foundation, the charity set up in 1997 to run the ORNC. 'The story of the Royal Hospital for Seamen, of which the Painted Hall was a centrepiece, helps shine light on all levels of 18th century society in London from the Royal Family to the impoverished naval pensioners for whom Sir Christopher Wren’s buildings were built to house.'

'Through the conservation programme we hope to engage more people with the fascinating history of the Painted Hall and the stories of the people who lived and worked here 300 years ago,' he adds. 'It is also an opportunity give insights into current conservation techniques.'

Over the past two hundred and seventy five years the artwork in the Painted Hall has seen ten restorations, with the last comprehensive restoration programme undertaken by the Ministry of Works between 1957 and 1960 under Westby Percival-Prescott. The current programme is being undertaken by the firm of Paine & Stewart, who recently conserved the Thornhill paintings in the dome of St Paul’s cathedral.

'The large-scale restoration project undertaken by the Ministry of Works proved highly successful in removing numerous previous varnishes which had darkened considerably,' says Stephen Paine. 'Nevertheless, there has now been an intervening period of over sixty years and the appearance of all the surfaces have once again become dull and muted in appearance due to heavy deposits of accumulated dirt and dust. Our work will therefore involve gently removing these dirt layers, to reveal the full splendour of the original paintings.'

Sue Bowers, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund for London, said: 'We’re delighted to see the restoration of the West Wall get underway, and that the public will now be given the opportunity to get up close to the work as it reveals Sir James Thornhill’s painting in all its original glory.'

Public tours of the scaffolding begin on 11 January and run to the end of April.

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