The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich is currently restoring the famous Painted Hall. The Hall is not, however, closed to visitors during this time: it is possible to book tours of the ceiling, climbing up on the scaffolding to get close to the ceiling and get a close-up view.
We put on our high-visibility jackets and hard hats in the room at the end of the hall, where we heard a little about the history. The Painted Hall is one of the most spectacular and important baroque interiors in Europe. Its ceiling and wall decorations were conceived and executed by the British artist Sir James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726, the period when the United Kingdom was created and became a dominant power in Europe. The end wall mural, which has already been restored, shows King George I and his large family, alongside symbols of wealth and plenty. The artist himself is in the bottom right corner of the painting.
We headed up the stairs to where a makeshift floor has been built with scaffolding, giving the appearance of a low-ceilinged room. Our guide talked us through the various murals and highlighted some of the key figures on the ceiling, as well as discussing the restoration work.
Among the figures represented are Greek and Roman gods, monarchs, and even one of the Greenwich pensioners, John Worley, who served at sea for 70 years. He is depicted with a long white beard and painted to represent the season of Winter. Over the past few centuries there have been several restorations, and many workers have left their mark on the ceiling, mostly in the corners where they have daubed their initials. One cheeky person, however, added his name and date right in the middle of Queen Anne’s chest. I did take a picture, but it doesn’t show up very well.
The tour is fascinating and well worth the effort. Tours can be booked online for days throughout the week and are due to continue for the duration of the building work.