"Up close to London's Sistine Chapel"Review Rating: Reviewed by All In London
The Old Naval College in Greenwich plays host to some of the most animated interiors in London. One building known simply as the Painted Hall is currently under restoration, but doors remain open to visitors as usual. Check with the Old Naval College for project updates: you could be climbing to the ceiling with conservators to see the brush strokes up close.
Rome's Sistine Chapel receives 20,000 visitors a day. There were just 12 of us on my midweek tour of the Painted Hall, with a few more visitors popping their heads around the door throughout the afternoon.
That's not to say that Greenwich's 300 year old historic site by Sir Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul's Cathedral and Kensington Palace, is not worthy of consideration. Londoners care enough for the Painted Hall to secure the first £500,000 of restoration funding, despite arguably keeping the place to themselves.
Originally a dining room for naval pensioners, the Painted Hall conceals a ceiling of gods, kings and drama tumbling from the heavens. The interior took British painter, Sir James Thornhill, 19 uninterrupted years to complete, and is now in the process of a long-overdue clean. Scaffolding stretches from floor to lofty ceiling against the West Wall, but it has been cleverly concealed to preserve the visitors' experience. Climb atop the scaffolding as part of an organised tour and gaze upon the rich red of the goddess Europa's robes, the brilliance of her string of pearls, and the expression of the eyes among animated faces.
Alongside us, conservators work hard at cleaning away the years of accumulated varnish, layers of smog and human tarnish. They strip the white ghostly veil from on top of the paint, revealing Thornhill's bold and exotic colours underneath. The four corners of the Empire are represented on the ceiling above the West Wall; the camels, lions and myriad animals are within touching distance. This is the imagery of military strength and entitlement. The Four Winds are also at play on the ceiling, working in harmony with the Royal Navy in defence of the crown; a fitting subject for what was once a naval hospital's dining room.
I visited these vast chambers as a child when the Painted Hall was the officers' mess of the Royal Naval College. Liveried waiters polished silver cutlery in a disciplined silence and ferried trolleys of bone china through the mysterious tunnels linking the buildings.
There is still an Old London sense of 'place' here. Lower-ranking sea men on the common tables in the Lower Hall with the splendid Upper Hall reserved for officers, presided over by painted faces of ambitious proportion depicting the reign of monarchs with their children in order of succession, seated on a richly brocaded rug elevated from the floor. At the bottom of the beautifully composed tableau stands the image of Thornhill with both feet on mortal ground, facing the royals in a display of servitude. Rumour has it that despite praise for this ambitious work, he wasn't always paid for it. Thornhill's painted face is turned towards the assembled diners; his wry look and extended palm waits for the pay cheque that took 300 years to arrive.
In the area:
• The Old Brewery, Pepys Building, Old Naval College. Limited edition beers brewed on the premises, cafe food, also hosts beer and food-matching evenings.
• The Cutty Sark, Greenwich Pier. Visit the clipper ship in its' groundbreaking and controversial new visitor centre.
All In London reviewed Painted Hall on Thu 18 Apr 2013