Celia Hart's blog about what's going on in and around her studio.
Art, printmaking, inspirations, gardening, vegetables, hens, landscapes, wild flowers, East Anglia, adventure, travel.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Dancing on the ceiling

Yesterday we had a change of scene ... a day out to Greenwich just south of the Thames in East London. To my surprise driving to there was a shorter distance than going to our closest sea-sides in Suffolk or Essex and was a much quicker journey.

We headed for a car park just south of in Greenwich Park near the Observatory and arrived at about mid-day, it was cloudy and drizzly but the views over the Maritime Greenwich Word Heritage Site were still splendid.

Turning to our left ... looking West to the City of London ... we could see the Shard, the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, the cluster of high-rise around The City, the River Thames's curving meanders and the history clipper sailing ship Cutty Sark. (click on the photos to enlarge them)

And over to our right ... looking East ... the chimneys of Greenwich Power Station which generates electricity for London, including the London Underground system; and to its right is the space-ship shape of The O2 arena, originally called the Millennium Dome.

We'd booked a tour ... I'll come to that shortly ... but we had time for a quick lunch in a restaurant overlooking the Thames Clipper boat jetty and then we went for brisk stroll under the river ... through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.

Out the other side on the North bank of the Thames we had a great view of the Royal Hospital buildings and the Queen's House which make up the iconic Greenwich architectural scene.

Swiftly back through the tunnel and the reason for our trip ... we had booked places on The Painted Hall Ceiling Tour in the great Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College.

The hall was designed by Sir Christopher Wren to be used as the refectory of the 'hospital' ... a home for retired and needy naval pensioners. It was basically their canteen, where they ate breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wren envisaged an elegant, unadorned space. But by the time the building was completed Nicholas Hawksmoor had taken over from Wren and fashions in architecture had moved on to ornate Baroque, as was fashionable in Europe, with complex allegorical scenes painted on every surface.

The masters of such work were Italian, French or Spanish but politics dictated the artist must not be a Roman Catholic or foreign. So a young British artist, James Thornhill, won the commission to design and carry out the work. He was paid £1 per square yard to paint the walls and £3 per square yard for the ceiling. Out of that fee he had to pay for his materials and pay his assistants.

The 300 year old paintings are now undergoing a major restoration ... at a cost of over £10 million. 

The end wall of the Upper Hall and its ceiling have already been cleaned and stabilised, so we could see how bright the vast ceiling of the Lower Hall would be when it is eventually transformed.

So the work can be carried out, the whole of the Lower Hall has been filled with scaffolding supporting a temporary floor just below the ceiling.

And that's what we had to ascend! Now, I'm not that comfortable about open mesh staircases ... so this was going to be a challenge for me. 

But I managed the 70 steps to the top and onto the solid floor. Up close to the painted ceiling you realise what a massive project James Thornhill had taken on. To create the design of two arches and an oval balcony full of hundreds figures depicting King William and Queen Mary presiding over the 'Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny', he had to make hundreds of sketches and plans, then somehow (and exactly how isn't known) transfer this design onto the 15 x 30 metre ceiling, while working on wooden scaffolding.

When viewed from the ground the composition creates an illusion of a dramatic architectural space. Up close you can see the vitality of the painting and the immense scale of the figures.

At the centre of the composition are Queen Mary and King William. Their faces and those of the other figures were painted by a portrait artist who was one of Thornhill's team. You can see the grey patches on the oil paint, apparently this is deterioration of later layers of varnish and this is what the restorers will remove  to reveal the original colours.

Another artist was employed to paint the renditions of fruit, foliage and flowers, these are particularly beautiful.

Seamlessly blending with the trompe l'oeil architecture, is a huge carved royal coat of arms ... it's not clear which parts are carved wood and which are modelled from plaster (?), however the gliding is the original 300 year old gold and even through the dust it's still very shiny.

It's an exhilarating experience ... do go along if you can. I'd like to return next year to see the partly cleaned and restored ceiling before the scaffolding comes down. I'd never heard of James Thornhill, his career was meteoric ... 25 years as a celebrated decorative artist who went on to paint the interior of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral and the interiors of many stately homes including Chatsworth, and was the first British artist to be knighted. He became an MP and a member of the Royal Society. He was 58 when he died at his country house in Devon. His last major painted interior was the chapel at Wimpole Hall ... I've visited but not taken close look, so I plan to go along there soon. His work may not be seen as the greatest 'art' and allegorical Baroque history paintings are a forgotten genre, but I can appreciate the hard work and skill. In fact it seems closer to illustration than fine art, and the architectural illusions that Thornhill painted can be compared to those created by CGI artists for film and video games today, so maybe he will now step out from obscurity.

By the time we had walked back up the steep hill through Greenwich Park, the weather had changed and the sun was out. We turned around to see this grand view! Do you think James Thornhill would have admired this panorama of architecture under those billowing clouds ... I think so.



  1. Thank you for that tour. I've been up close to a few ceilings due to being married to a conservator. I enjoyed your photographs.

  2. Oh! What a great mini-tour (from an Antipodean perspective!) I'll come back and have a wallow later...there is a stupid-o'clock-flight in a few hours...

  3. What a fascinating experience, and I'm surprised at how close to home it is. I'm glad you managed the steps ok as it was claerly worth it. I was born in Greenwich, and lived there again for a year as a student, I have photos across the river prior to Canary Warfe :-)

  4. That is amazing and fascinating - so much fun to see the work in progress, and it would be interesting if you can see it again next year when the restoration is complete (or at least further along)Clearly something else I have to add to our "to see" list next time we are in the UK!
    My cousins' son is working with the restoration team on Knole house in Kent for the National Trust, and that is another place I would love to see both in progress and when complete

  5. Thank you so much, Celia, for this very interesting and informative post, and your excellent photographs. Bravo on managing that climb up to view that amazing ceiling, and also bravo for the descent. Wow.

    Thank you for acquainting me with Thornhill and other commissions that he completed. I like your musing about how his talents might be commissioned in today's world.

    Eventually, I will have my own Greenwich visit. Up until now, there just always seem to be too many other wonderful destinations vying for my time while I am in London.

    (Of course, there are many wonderful places near to my NYC home that I have yet to see.) xo

  6. That sounded like an interesting day, although I would have been nervous of the tunnel I think, all that water above!


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