May 2013

The Greenwich Foundation for the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) secured a grant from Grundtvig, part of the European funding programme which supports education and training across Europe, to run a residential adult learning workshop. Twenty adult learners, from 14 different countries across the EU, together with six UK adult learners, spent a week in London with the learning team from the ORNC to look at large-scale baroque wall paintings and how they are conserved.

Sir James Thornhill, who decorated the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College between 1708 and 1727, is one of a very few British artists who produced large wall paintings at this time. His work, like most artists of his day, is full of signs, symbols and allegories. This commonality of approach allowed adult learners to look at the international language of art and become familiar with some of these signs, knowledge of which enables the viewer to 'read' the painting and gain a much greater depth of understanding and appreciation of the stories told in the paintings.

We set up a social media group on Yammer before the workshop, so that learners could get to know each other. They were also asked to prepare a short talk on baroque paintings they either particularly like or that are on display in their countries. As the learners talked about their chosen images, it became evident that this language of art was indeed international, as certain signs, especially Greek gods such as Mercury and Artemis, appeared over and over again, and by the end of the week many were instantly recognisable.

During the workshop, the Painted Hall was in the middle of a major conservation project to clean and stabilise Sir James Thornhill's baroque paintings. Adult learners had a chance to look at the paintings close up from the special viewing platform (10 metres high) and to talk to conservators about the problems of conserving such large paintings. They also attended a half day conference led by art historical experts and the lead conservator on the project, and even heard about the paintings in the artist's own words – played by a character actor.

There are many wonderful examples of baroque wall paintings elsewhere in London, and during the second half of a very cold week, we began to explore further afield. We visited Hampton Court Palace, St Paul's Cathedral and the Banqueting House. We were even able to go behind the scenes at Hampton Court and St Paul's, and had some in-depth talks led by specialist curators, something everyone involved in the project really enjoyed. It was fascinating to see the same signs, symbols and allegories appear again, and really helped to establish links between the artists and to get a good understanding of the important issues of the time.


All the learners had a declared interest in art, and this meant that they were eager to bring their interests and knowledge to the workshop. They were curious to find out more about each other's culture, whether it was art or eating. The EU learners stayed in the same hotel and ate dinner together – joined on three evenings by Old Royal Naval College learning team staff. One evening we had pizzas on a converted London bus.

Having a focus meant that visiting a city as big as London became much easier, and having a subject that had a visual basis reduced language barriers. Our two wonderful ESOL support workers kept the learners engaged throughout.

From their comments, learners had a great week – as did the learning team from the ORNC. We hope they will able to have a deeper engagement with not just baroque art, but all artworks in the future, and that they will carry on visiting museums, galleries and heritage sites. And of course we hope they keep in touch with each other, and with us via our social media pages and the workshop Flickr group.

Jo Hall, Head of Learning and Interpretation

Selected comments from learners:

'I firmly believe that it is a great experience not only from the point of personal gains, but also from that of European cohesion.'

'We got a chance to see many places relevant to the topic of the workshop which is the best way for the learning process.'

'there were a variety of activities, approaches and events to help people with different education, life experience and mother tongues to feel comfortable and to get a lot of information on baroque wall paintings and conservation.'

'This workshop was very well organised and the content was superb.'

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