Sunday, April 2nd 2017
Long ago, Anglo-Saxon incomers founded a small settlement on the southern bank of the Thames where this river makes a big loop around the Isle of Dogs. The name they gave it was banal enough – Gronewic, meaning ‘green place or settlement’ – but, unbeknownst to them, it would become famous around the world and of the first importance to mariners and navigators.
Today we call it Greenwich (pronounced Grenn’itch) and its name defines the Prime Meridian (0° longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time. The Royal Observatory was founded here in 1675-6 and Wren’s Royal Naval Hospital for Sailors (created from the Palace of Placentia, where Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born) in 1873 became the Royal Naval College. This noble collection of buildings ceased being a college in 1998 and today houses the National Maritime Museum, the University of Greenwich and other institutions.
We came here today to avail ourselves of a unique opportunity, that of visiting the famous Painted Hall and climbing 60 feet up a staircase to see at close range its historic Painted Ceiling which is currently undergoing renovation. Public tours are organized both for their intrinsic interest and also to help add to the funding required to complete this delicate work. (See here for tour information.)
There is a lot to interest the visitor to Greenwich quite apart from the Observatory and the Maritime Museum. One place worth exploring is Greenwich Market. There are shops and stalls selling a wide variety of wares as well as food stalls and you are bound to find something you like as long as you don’t mind the crush of people!
We entered the the grounds of the Royal Naval College through the western entrance with its massive gate posts.
We walked along the central thoroughfare, called College Way, and came in sight of the dome that marks the Painted Hall which was our destination. The site is complex with a number of buildings whose names and purposes I do not know in detail. This Google Map might help orient you and there is a plan here.
The various buildings and the grounds in which they are set offer many impressive views, especially on a sunny day.
We went to the Painted Hall and enquired about tickets. The tours are very popular and to be sure of being able to take a tour on a particular day it’s probably better to reserve in advance. We were fortunate enough to secure tickets for the tour starting at 2:40.
Having our tickets, we went out of the hall again and waited outside in the sunshine for the time of our tour. We were asked to return 10 minutes before the tour was due to start.
Tour groups follow one another in quick succession and so timing is crucial. We were mustered in the Painted Hall as the group ahead of us started in its way.
Here we were issued with 1. a hard hat, such as builders wear on building sites, 2. a hi-vis jacket and 3. an audio wireless headset. These headsets have become popular with tour guides because, using them, they can make themselves heard without shouting even to individuals who wander away from the group. I found mine too small and had difficulty fitting it to my head so that I could hear.
The paintings were executed by Sir James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726. A more detailed history, and some explanation of the iconography, will be found here. The artwork refers to two reigns, that of William and Mary (seen as liberators of the country from the rule of the oppressor, the Catholic King James) and that of George I. Queen Anne seems to have been ignored. Moderns will perhaps find the symbolism sycophantic and jingoistic but, to be fair, it probably reflects the mood of the time, at least among royalists and the military.
Ceiling painting has much in common with the painting of stage sets: there is no point in engaging in fine detail, as this is not seen from the ground, and what is important is large scale impact. This means that close examination of the ceiling is likely to be a little disappointing. The space between the platform on which we stood and the ceiling above us was about 7 feet. This meant that it was impossible to see, let alone photograph, large areas of it. The best would be to lie on one’s back pointing the camera straight up but with two tour groups tramping about, this was never going to be a practical proposition! Any photographs therefore would cover only a small area and be subject to serious perspective effects. Also, lighting was by spotlights and, as the surface of the ceiling was smooth and shiny, reflection was a problem. Below is a selection of the photos I took but you will find better ones online.
This head is a detail from a moulded royal coat of arms, probably that of George I, half hidden by scaffolding. I liked the winged dragon crest on Mars’s helmet.
This will give you some idea of the layout. The lowness of the ceiling had advantages for restorers but disadvantages for photographers. Each tour group wore a different colour.We were green and our predecessors were red.
We decided that for our return journey we would take the river boat to London Bridge where we would have a choice of buses to take us home. This gateway leads from the grounds of the Royal Naval College to the river bank and thence to the jetty where the river boat calls.
While waiting I took this multi-shot picture of the Thames, the river that has seen so much history and, though it no longer receives the great merchant ships of yesteryear, still beats like the living heart of London.