The Painted Hall Project took place between 2016 and 2019, and was developed to clean and conserve Sir James Thornhill’s magnificent 17th Century paintings. Coinciding with the conservation was the restoration of the King William Undercroft, transforming the space into a shop, café and interpretation gallery.

With special thanks to our donors and partners, the Painted Hall has been vividly back to life and is now open to the public, featuring a brand new visitor experience including expertly guided tours, multimedia guides and family trails. The Old Royal Naval College has also welcomed a number of awards for the project, including a prestigious Museums & Heritage Award for Restoration/Conservation project of the Year and 2 RIBA awards.

Painted Hall team winners at Museum + Heritage awards

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Project Timeline

The Painted 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 suffered - smoke and dirt built up on the surfaces, and varnish layers fractured under the effects of heat and humidity.

A trial clean of the west wall in 2012 (Phase I of the Painted Hall Project) showed the transformational effects conservation work would achieve. As the dirt was carefully removed, the colour and vibrancy of Thornhill’s work was restored. Spurred on by this success, the Old Royal Naval College then set its sights on conserving the remaining 40,000sq ft of painted surface.

The west wall, shortly after it was conserved in 2013.

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 underwent its most comprehensive makeover in its history. Over the last two years, under the direction of expert conservators Stephen Paine and Sophie Stewart, every inch of decorated surface has been lovingly cleaned and conserved.

Since the last restoration in the 1950s the paintings had deteriorated, with large areas of ‘blanching’ or whitening covering the surface and obscuring the detail. A small team of conservators worked to carefully clean the paintings, with spectacular results. The colour and vibrancy of the paintings can now be enjoyed, illuminated by a new state-of-the-art LED system.

© English Heritage

As the painted surfaces were cleaned, new details were uncovered that revealed how Thornhill planned and executed his vast work. Shadows of corrected details appeared behind later paint layers and large areas of beautifully detailed history painting emerged from behind dirt and decay. As many as 30 signatures from previous ‘restorers’ were studied at close quarters, including one indelicately placed on the bosom of Mary II, revealing 300 years of almost continuous cleaning.

Painted Hall Ceiling Tours

The project was also one of the largest open access conservation projects in Europe. Between 2017 and 2018 an accessible observation deck gave over 80,000 visitors the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe the conservators at work, and experience the drama of the ceiling up close.

King William Undercroft

Alongside the Painted Hall’s conservation, the King William Undercroft, a grand space located beneath the Painted Hall has been lovingly restored to its original form. This space, originally used as a day-to-day dining room for the naval pensioners, now houses a shop, café and an interpretation gallery where visitors can learn about the history and meaning of Thornhill’s masterpiece, prior to ascending into the Painted Hall itself.

Tudor remains

In the course of works to the Undercroft, two rooms from Henry VIII’s long-lost Greenwich Palace were unearthed beneath a concrete floor, including a cellar containing a series of unusual niches, which archaeologists believe may be ‘bee boles’ for the keeping of skeps (hive baskets) during the winter months when bee colonies hibernate. These remarkable finds have been incorporated into the interpretation area and is now on permanent display to visitors. Greenwich Palace was the favoured royal palace of Henry VIII, who was born at Greenwich along with his daughters Mary I and Elizabeth I.

Now open to the public, experience the Painted Hall in all its new glory: plan your visit today.

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