- The Painted Hall’s west wall has been restored over several months at a cost of £335,000
- The restoration work, the first for more than 50 years, is part of plans to restore the whole room
By Steve Nolan
PUBLISHED: 18:58, 4 May 2013 | UPDATED: 18:58, 4 May 2013
Adorned with beautiful baroque paintings that wouldn’t look out of place in the Sistine Chapel, it is little wonder that the Painted Hall at London’s Old Royal Naval College has been described as the ‘finest dining hall in Europe’.
And the stunning splendour of the hall’s West Wall and part of its ceiling have been restored to their former glory thanks to the completion of the first restoration work on the artwork for half a century.
Work on the section of the historic hall cost £335,000 and several months to complete and was possible thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The work was part of a project to restore the entire hall which will cost £2.5million and take several years.
Majestic: Visitors gather around the restoration work which has cost £335,000 to complete and is part of a wider project to restore the entire Painted Hall
Visitors got their first glimpse at the restored work this week.
The Painted Hall was originally designed as a dining hall for the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, which came to be known as Greenwich Hospital.
The original building was designed by Christopher Wren and built between 1696 and 1712. It was built in the mold of Les Invalides and Chelsea Hospital to house pensioners.
Similar to their Chelsea counterparts, Greenwich Hospital’s pensioners wore a uniform, but in blue and not red.
Wren commissioned artist James Thornhill, who also painted the dome in the architect’s masterpiece St Paul’s Cathedral, to decorate the dining hall in 1708 and he painstakingly painted it over the next 19 years.
He was instructed to include as many references as possible to the importance of the Navy in Britain’s fortunes.
His outstanding work shows his remarkable skill in the use of trompe l’oeil painting throughout, and makes full use of perspective.
He painted directly on to dry plaster, working on what must have been rather precarious scaffolding.
The West Wall itself shows Britain’s new royal family from Hanover in Germany. George I is surrounded by his children and grandchildren and the dome of Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral looms large in the background.
Thornhill himself appears in the bottom right-hand corner with his paintbrushes and palette. Although the composition of this wall was certainly by Thornhill, it was probably painted by his highly skilled assistant Dietrich André.
Thornhill was paid just £3 per square metre for his work on the ceiling and £1 per square yard for the walls.
But his years of toil did not go unnoticed and Thornhill was awarded a knighthood in 1720.
Once the hall was completed it was deemed too grand to act as a dining hall and instead well-to-do visitors were allowed in to look around for a charge of £3 with the pensioners acting as tour guides.
The Painted Hall was deemed special enough for Admiral Nelson’s body to lay in state their in 1806 and a plaque still marks the spot where his coffin lay.
From 1824 until 1936, the Painted Hall housed the National Gallery of naval Art and more than 300 works.
From 1939 onwards the room’s function finally met its original purpose and it acted as a dining room for the Old Royal Naval College and a venue for important dinners, including the 1946 celebration dinner marking the formation of the United Nations.
The last restoration work was carried out in the 1950s when 15 layers of varnish had to be meticulously removed.
The latest conservation work was carried out by specialist company Paine & Stewart.
Wesley Kerr, chairman of the Heritage Lottery Fund Committee for London, who officially unveiled the conserved west wall and upper ceiling paintings, said: ‘The Painted Hall is London’s Sistine Chapel – it is one of the most magnificent rooms in Europe and Thornhill’s work is one of the finest paintings in Britain.
‘We are delighted that this first phase of restoration works is now complete, revealing a masterly exposition of historic, royal, naval and London motifs.
‘More than a thousand people climbed the scaffold to see the restoration in progress, and we look forward to tens of thousands more visiting Greenwich to view this magnificent attraction in the future.’