The Painted Hall is the largest painted interior in Europe and the centrepiece of the World Heritage Site in Greenwich.

It stands at the centre of the Old Royal Naval College, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1694. Originally called the Royal Hospital for Seamen, the complex was commissioned by King William III and Queen Mary II to house retired veterans of Britain’s royal navy. The Painted Hall, which visitors can explore today through Painted Hall Ceiling Tours, operated as the dining hall of this grand hospital.

Sir James Thornhill’s masterpiece

In 1707, Sir James Thornhill was commissioned to decorate the walls and ceilings of the hall. Over the course of the next 19 years, from 1707 to 1726, Thornhill, assisted by a team of decorative painters and craftsmen, created 3,700 square metres of painted surface. The Painted Hall was Thornhill’s greatest artistic commission, and he became the first British artist to receive a knighthood for his work in 1720.

The painting

The lower hall ceiling

The Painted Hall is a sequence of three distinct but connected spaces: the vestibule, the lower hall and the upper hall. Throughout the hall, Thornhill conjures the illusion of an even larger space, with heavenly clouds swirling beyond the hall, using fictional light sources, foreshortening and trick-of-the-eye effects, which he learned from Italian high baroque paintings.

The vast lower hall ceiling, measuring 15 by 30 metres, celebrates the victory of King William and Queen Mary over Roman Catholicism, in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-9, when they ousted the Catholic king James II. The triumphant monarchs sit at the centre of the composition against an illusionary sky, surrounded by symbols of their triumph, the might of the Royal Navy and the commercial and trading pre-eminence that flowed from it. Painted Hall Ceiling Tours will allow the public to ascend to an observation deck and get closer to the lower hall.

The upper hall ceiling, conceived ten years later in 1722, honours the next monarch Queen Anne and her consort Prince George of Denmark, Lord High Admiral. The royal figures are positioned next to artistic personifications of Europe, Asia, America and Africa and the coats of arms of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. The unifying theme of this section continues the celebration of Britain’s unsurpassed maritime might.

King William III and Mary II on the lower hall ceiling

The Painted Hall through history

In October 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson was killed during the Battle of Trafalgar, his greatest and last victory. The Painted Hall was chosen as his farewell resting place, drawing vast crowds over the course of three days from 5 January 1806. The significance of the Battle of Trafalgar as Britain’s greatest naval victory made Nelson’s arrival here a momentous occasion in the Painted Hall’s history. The exact spot where the coffin lay is marked by a plaque on the floor.

For a hundred years from 1824 the Painted Hall housed the first national gallery of naval art, hung with paintings by J.M.W. Turner and Sir Joshua Reynolds. A total of just over 300 paintings were on display here at the time. The last naval pensioners left the Royal Hospital in 1869, when the site 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. 

Today, the Painted Hall Project aims to conserve Thornhill’s paintings and develop a sophisticated understanding of Sir James Thornhill’s magnificent design, which had evolved over the course of two decades in response to the changing political and aesthetic demands of the British monarchs. As part of the project, the public will be able to ascend an observation deck and explore the Painted Hall’s ceiling up close via Painted Hall Ceiling Tours.

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