Royal Naval Hospital

We were invited to inspect the Thornhill ceiling paintings in the Painted Hall in Greenwich before the scaffolding is struck at the end of the month.

First, it was, as always, a pleasure to see the great mise-en-scène of the Royal Naval Hospital as laid out by Wren, with the help of Hawksmoor, after its foundation by Queen Mary after the Battle of La Hogue in 1692.   The first building, which was already there, was John Webb’s earlier wing of the Royal Palace:-

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Wren and Hawksmoor then added the great double flanking colonnades allowing the view through to the Queen’s House as Queen Mary required:-

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On 1 February 1698, Wren was asked to ‘ lay before the Committee at the next meeting a draught and estimate of an Hall to be added to the present building in pursuance of the general design’.   On 5 April, Wren’s Clerk of Works (i.e. Hawksmoor) was instructed ‘to set out the ground’ and the detailed drawings in the Soane Museum are in his hand.

Thornhill was commissioned to undertake work on the painted hall in July 1707, after it had been plastered ‘after the best manner fit for painting’ by the appropriately named Mr. Doogood.

One enters under the Dome, which, as Thornhill himself described in his published Explanation of the Painting in the Royal Hospital at Greenwich (London, 1726), has ‘the four WINDS painted in Stone Colour’:-

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At the far end is a wall painting, already restored, which shows George I ‘leaning on a Terrestial Globe’:-

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Above, a view of St. Paul’s:-

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Mercury draws attention to the motto, JAM NOVA PROGENIES CAELO:-

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Thornhill himself is present in the lower right:-

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As one climbs the scaffolding up onto the roof, one sees the incredibly high quality of the carved decoration:-

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But, also, that Thornhill (or his assistants) was a much better painter than history generally allows him to have been:-

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Queen Mary has the unexpected feature of the name of her late eighteenth-century restorer written on her breast:-

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3 thoughts on “Royal Naval Hospital

  1. joan says:

    I enjoyed the tour so much the first time I did it that I subsequently took the other four members of my household along on my return trip. I would urge anyone to go along – the stairs up to the platform aren’t too onerous, the headphones mean that the guide’s words are crystal clear and if you have an art pass it is very cheap indeed.

    On the theme of Wren and climbing, another thing to look out for next summer (they have finished for the year) are the St Paul’s Cathedral summer lates. These are Thursday nights when the cathedral stays open until 9.30 pm so that visitors can climb up to the dome and watch the sun set over London. We did it a few weeks back and it was wonderful. It also means that you can look around the cathedral at a time when it is relatively quiet (a small group of us were able to watch the Bill Viola’s in quiet contemplation) and the cathedral actively encourages photography (I’ve been in Durham Cathedral this week where photography is not allowed so don’t know if this is unusual for cathedrals).

    Joan

    • Westminster Abbey forbids it, even when I asked for special permission to photograph its wonderful eighteenth-century tombs. I totally agree that the Painted Hall tour is worth it. An easy ascent and a great experience.

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