Often described as the “finest dining hall in Europe”, the Painted Hall in Greenwich was originally designed to be the Royal Hospital for Seamen’s communal dining hall.
But the domed hall, which forms part of King William Court – the image, right, is taken from the west end, wasn’t used as such following its completion in the mid 1720s – designed by Sir Christopher Wren and his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor with spectacular interior paintings by Sir James Thornhill, it was deemed too grand for such a mundane purpose and instead the veteran seamen, who had moved their dining hall to the undercroft, acted as tour guides for those who would pay to see its splendour.
The paintings, for which Thornhill received his knighthood, took almost 20 years to complete. They were designed to show Britain’s naval power as well as a variety of royal subjects in their splendour. The Stuart dynasty are featured on the ceiling of the Lower Hall while the West Wall depicts the Hanoverians – King George I surrounded by his children and grandchildren including the future King George II. Thornhill himself is also present on the lower right hand section of the West Wall painting while in the background is the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral – a reference to Sir Christopher Wren.
The hall has since served a variety of purposes but among the most significant events to take place there was the lying in state of the body of Admiral Lord Nelson following his death in the Battle of Trafalgar in October, 1805. A plaque at the top of the hall marks the spot where the coffin stood.
Between 1834 and 1936, the Painted Hall served as the National Gallery of Naval Art during which more than 300 paintings around naval themes were displayed there (today these form part of the basis of the National Maritime Museum’s art collection).
After an extensive restoration, in 1939 it was again used as a dining room for officers attending the Royal Naval College and for other grand dinners, including one celebrating the formation of the United Nations in 1946.
It’s now available for hire and has also served as a film location – including for films such as The Madness of King George, Quills and the more recent film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
An appeal has been launched to restore the hall with the expected nine month, £450,000 restoration of the West Wall paintings slated to begin after the Olympic Games. To donate, head here.
WHERE: King William Court, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich (nearest Docklands Light Rail station is Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich). WHEN: 10am to 5pm daily ; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.ornc.org/visit/attractions/painted-hall.