The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich is one of the most spectacular and important baroque interiors in Europe. Its ceiling and wall decorations were conceived and executed by the British artist Sir James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726 at the pivotal moment when the United Kingdom was created and became a dominant power in Europe.

The accessions to the throne of William III and Mary II in 1688 and George I in 1714 form the central narrative of a scheme which also triumphalises Britain’s maritime and trading successes. The artist drew on a cast of around 200 figures to tell a story of political change, scientific and cultural achievements, naval endeavours, and commercial enterprise against a series of magnificent backdrops. The characters he included are allegorical, mythological, historical and contemporary.

The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, before conservation began

The grandeur of the composition, which covers 40,000 square feet, reflects the importance of the space the paintings adorn: the hall of a new Royal Hospital for men invalided out of the Navy. The Hospital was established at Queen Mary’s instigation in 1694 and designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Wren took inspiration for this new complex of buildings from other early modern European projects to house military veterans such as Louis XIV’s Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, as well as his own Royal Hospital at Chelsea. The Painted Hall itself was originally intended as a grand dining room for the Naval pensioners, but it soon became a ceremonial space open to paying visitors and reserved for special functions.

The Painted Hall is a powerful synthesis of painting and architecture in which Thornhill’s decoration appears to emanate effortlessly from the interior of Hawksmoor’s imposing building. By turns extravagant, playful, thoughtful, naïve and politically-shrewd, Thornhill’s scheme (one for which he received a knighthood and payment of £6,685) presents a vivid and compelling picture of Britain’s place in the world according to those who governed it at the start of the eighteenth century. The Painted Hall has overawed and delighted visitors ever since.

The paintings

The Painted Hall is a sequence of three distinct but connected spaces: first, we encounter the soaring domed Vestibule, then the long, brightly lit Lower Hall and finally the Upper Hall whose west wall provides the highly theatrical finale.

The Lower Hall ceiling, which measures 15 by 30 metres and was executed between 1708 and 1714, celebrates the ‘Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny’. At the centre of the composition are the figures of King William and Queen Mary surrounded by various mythological and allegorical figures. The king is shown with his foot on a figure representing ‘arbitrary power and tyranny’ – which appears to be a thinly veiled depiction of Louis XIV.

The Upper Hall ceiling, conceived by Thornhill in a separate phase after 1717, honours Queen Anne and her consort Prince George of Denmark, next to personifications of the continents Europe, Asia, America and Africa and the coats of arms of England, Scotland, France and Ireland.

The West Wall depicts George I and his court

The west wall, one of the last elements to be completed in 1725, celebrates the arrival of the Hanoverians (‘a new race of men from Heaven’ as its motto declares) with George I at the centre of a large family group portrait. Other figures and objects reinforce messages of peace, stability and prosperity underpinned by naval might.

Thornhill used a variety of techniques such as chiaroscuro (contrast of light and dark), fictional light sources and foreshortening to enliven his paintings. His use of illusionistic architecture and steep perspective was inspired by Roman high baroque painting.

The passage of nineteen years from the start of the commission in 1707 to its completion in 1726, and the need to navigate contemporary political events, meant that Thornhill was required to rethink the design of his paintings several times. That the finished scheme flows so seamlessly is testament to his great skill as a grand-scale decorative history painter. Thornhill’s preparatory sketches for the Painted Hall (today held in a number of London galleries and museums) reveal how carefully he experimented with and planned the content. When he had completed his work, Thornhill wrote An Explanation of the paintings which was published by the Hospital directors and sold to visitors.  

Later history

In January 1806 the Painted Hall saw the laying-in-state of Admiral Lord Nelson on his long journey to St Paul’s Cathedral following his death at the Battle of Trafalgar.  Large crowds queued up to view the body of Nelson over three days. The exact spot where the coffin lay is marked by a plaque on the floor.

For a hundred years from 1824 the Hall was given over to the first National Gallery of Naval Art. Thornhill’s painted interior assumed secondary importance to more than 300 easel paintings by artists such as J.M.W. Turner and Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The last naval pensioners left the site in 1869 when it became home to the Royal Naval College, an officers’ training academy. From 1937 to 1997 the Painted Hall functioned as a dining space for trainee officers of the Royal Navy. 

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