There has been radio silence on the jobs front so I took the opportunity to go to Greenwich to visit the Royal Naval College. Greenwich is a hidden treasure of London, which we go to by boat on Golden Tours. It has the National Maritime Museum, The Royal Observatory a statue of old tobacco man Sir Walter Raleigh and the Cutty Sark, which I have written about before (http://diaryofatouristguide.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/cutty-sark-ship-witch-and-whisky.html). You get a good feel for the maritime tradition of London here but you have to climb up to the Old Royal Observatory to see the Meridian line. This is where a red ball was lowered at one o’clock so captains could set their clocks to calculate longitude at sea.
Inevitably it was Christopher Wren who was given the job of designing the home for retired sailors at Greenwich, just as he had done for the old soldiers at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. Yet, it is Sir James Thornhill who is remembered here for painting the ceiling of the Painted Hall, which you can now walk up to see while it is being restored. Thornhill was young, relatively unknown and, therefore, cheap. He earned £1 a yard for his work on the walls and £3 for the ceiling, presumably more back-breaking work. The total bill was £6,685 out of which he had to pay his assistants and provide materials. Our guide Simon said that the self-portrait of Thornhill on the wall shows him holding out his hand as if asking for more money. He did not make a fortune from the Painted Hall but did make his reputation – with a knighthood thrown in for good measure.
Thornhill’s work shows the importance of sea and the rivers of England for trade and the role of the nearby Royal Observatory but the name theme was to be the Triumph of Liberty over Tyranny. William and Mary and Queen Anne represent liberty, while Louis XIV of France is the bad guy, who gets his face trampled by William’s boot. It took so long to paint the hall that the House of Hanover had come to the throne by the time he finished so George the First and his son the future George the Second are shown as well. George’s wife is conspicuously absent, locked away back in Hanover for having a lover.
With all the scaffolding in place it is harder to appreciate the overall themes but easier to see the details. You can almost shake the hand of the astronomer Royal John Flamsteed as you come to the top of the stairs. Even one of the old sailors is portrayed, a character called John Worley, a notorious troublemaker who was at least kept quiet while he was being painted representing Winter.
The retired sailors did not actually get to see all this symbolic art very much. The Painted Hall was originally intended to be used for their meals but it was considered too magnificent in the end and was saved for major occasions while they ate down below in the Jacobean crypt. Later their numbers declined and the complex, which had originally been a royal palace where both Henry the Eighth and Elizabeth the First were born, became an officer’s training college and is now part of Greenwich University.
Visiting the Great Hall costs £10 and you can sponsor the restoration process at ornc.org This costs £75 per square foot – considerably more than Thornhill was paid.
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