One of the many pleasures of a visit to Greenwich is the architecture. If you arrive by boat, or from the other side of the Thames, your first sight is likely to be the classic view of the Old Royal Naval College, with its baroque architecture and twin domes. And the recent restoration of the Painted Hall, a dining room covered with 18th century paintings, makes a visit to the Naval College even more memorable.
The complex of buildings that formed the Old Royal Naval College were built at different times. And they have had a variety of uses over the centuries.
The history of the site goes back further than the buildings you see today. The first building in this location was Greenwich Palace, also known as the Palace of Placentia. It was built for a private owner in 1447, but later taken over and expanded by Henry VII. The palace was the birthplace of Henry VIII and of his daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I.
By the end of the Civil War, in the mid-1600s, Greenwich Palace had fallen into disrepair and was subsequently demolished to make way for a new building. However, two rooms from the Tudor palace – part of the kitchens and service areas – were discovered beneath the Undercroft of the Naval College during restoration work in 2017.
The Royal Hospital
Queen Mary II commissioned the architect Christopher Wren to build a Royal Hospital on the site. This was not a hospital in the modern sense, but a place for retired seamen to live. Between 1694 and 1869 more than 20,000 former sailors made their home here.
Wren designed the four buildings with their two domes in the English Baroque style. He did not live to see the completed work: it was completed after his death by a number of other architects. Interestingly, the central avenue between the buildings was not a design feature, but was included so as not to disturb Queen Mary’s view of the river from the Queen’s House, situated just behind the new hospital.
The last pensioner left the Royal Hospital in 1869 and the buildings were taken over by the Royal Naval College a few years later. It became a place for the training of naval officers, and during World War II many Wrens were also trained here.
The Pepys Building (now the Visitor Centre) was added in the late 19th century to house squash and racquets courts for officers. The Royal Naval College moved out of Greenwich in 1998.
Since 1999 the Old Royal Naval College has been occupied by the University of Greenwich. However, the grounds and parts of the buildings – including the Pepys Building, the Chapel and the Painted Hall – are open to the general public.
The Painted Hall
The highlight of any visit to the Royal Naval College must be the Painted Hall, at the front of King William Court. The hall was originally intended as a dining room for the naval pensioners, and there was an adjoining smoking room. However, in 1707 the governors of the hospital commissioned the artist James Thornhill to paint the hall as a tribute to the founders, Queen Mary II and King William III. It then became a majestic dining space, to be used only on grand occasions.
The decoration of the rooms took 19 years, and during this time the walls and ceilings were covered with paintings. The décor was so ornate that the hall became known as “Britain’s Sistine Chapel”. However, over the years the paintings became dirty and damaged, and there was a massive restoration project between 2016 and 2019. Visitors can once again enjoy the splendour of the Painted Hall, and it can even be hired as a venue for formal meals.
“Britain’s Sistine Chapel”
The painting on the ceiling of the Lower Hall is a complex allegorical scene. It was designed to show the victory of Protestantism (depicted by William and Mary in England) over Catholicism (shown by Louis XIV in France). However the ostensible theme is Peace and Liberty triumphing over Tyranny, and numerous mythological characters support this theme. As befits the location, the painting also incorporates nautical motifs, including ships, anchors and flags.
The Upper Hall continues the theme with paintings celebrating the Protestant succession via Queen Anne and then George I. The large painting on the West Wall shows King George with his children and numerous grandchildren, who would presumably save the throne from any claim by Europe’s Catholic rulers. An interesting omission from the picture is the king’s wife, Sophia, who never came to England nor became queen. However, the faint image of a hand beneath the carpet is said to be that of the absent Sophia…
Visiting the Painted Hall
There is an entrance charge for the Painted Hall. Tickets can be bought in advance to save queuing. Audio tours and children’s activities are available.
Visitors are free to walk around the extensive grounds of the College and to enjoy the architecture. A good place to start is at the Visitor Centre, with its exhibitions telling the story of the buildings and the people associated with them. As you walk around there is lots more to discover, including the King William Undercroft, the Chapel and the Old Brewery.
King William Undercroft
The King William Undercroft is beneath the Painted Hall, and was restored at the same time. The undercroft was originally used as an everyday dining room, but today it houses a café and exhibition area. Glass panels in the floor allow visitors a glimpse of the two rooms from the former Greenwich Palace that were unearthed during the restoration.
Another feature of the undercroft is the Victorian Skittle Alley. This was added in the 19th century to provide activity for the naval pensioners. Entrance to the Skittle Alley is included in tickets for the Painted Hall, and you can even have a game of skittles while you are there!
The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul
The chapel was the last part of the Royal Hospital to be built, and was not completed until 1751. It was destroyed by fire in 1779 and rebuilt in the new-classical style. The impressive interior includes many nautical images.
The chapel is still used as a place of worship today. It is also a venue for concerts by students from the Trinity Labon Conservatoire of Music and Dance: during my visit I enjoyed a performance of harp music. (The concerts are free, and take place every Tuesday and Friday at 1 pm.)
The Old Brewery
Because water was not generally safe to drink, a brewery was needed to provide the residents with ale. The first brewhouse was built by Henry VIII and a new building was established in 1717 to supply the pensioners with their ration of three pints of beer a day (pumped directly to the Hospital dining room).
The brewery caught fire in 1843 and was later destroyed. The current Old Brewery dates from 2010 and serves craft beers from the local Meantime Brewery. A pleasant place to enjoy a drink and a meal after a morning’s sightseeing!
Thanks to the Old Royal Naval College for providing me with tickets for the Painted Hall.