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Places to Go in London: A Hidden Art Gem


Wed 29 Sep 21

Following an £8.5 million facelift, the UK’s answer to the Sistine Chapel is ready to visit. It’s actually called the Painted Hall and is open for all to view in London’s Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, rather than Rome.

The scale and expertise of the painting, however, led to it being compared to Michaelangelo’s Italian masterpiece. It’s a big claim. But as far as places to go in London for artwork – this is the one to see. For nearly two decades Sir James Thornhill toiled away over the epic mural, this is the story of the painter and the Painted Hall.

Places to go in London

Who was Sir James Thornhill?

You might not know the name, but the iconic buildings Thornhill worked on read like a guidebook of places to go in London. The English painter chose to focus on historical subjects and worked in the Italian Baroque style. This led to high-profile commissions of his large-scale murals. The Painted Hall was one such commission, but Thornhill also did the paintings for the interior dome at St Paul’s Cathedral. Other highlights in his celebrated career include works at Chatsworth House (home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire) and Wimpole Hall. King George I even appointed Thornhill as the Court Painter, and he was later knighted.

Places to go in London: Old Royal Naval College

How was the painting completed?

It took nearly two long decades (1706-1726) to complete this 18th-century Baroque gem. Thornhill was an accomplished artist, but even for him, this was a Herculean undertaking. His designs underwent several different iterations and the artist had to work around various political upheavals. These would become a key theme of his work.

Visiting The Old Royal Naval College, you are hit by the sheer scale of the mural. Thornhill brought to life over 200 figures to tell stories of Britain’s naval power, its political struggles, and its commercial endeavours. The mural almost looks as though it’s floating down from the ceiling towards visitors. This was a skilful technique Thornhill employed called “trompe l’oeil”. It translates as “trick of the eye”, and he used realistic imagery to create 3D optical illusions. Visit The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich to see it for yourself.

What’s the painting of?

As you can imagine, with over 200 characters the painting tells multiple stories. There’s a mix of historical storytelling but also allegorical nods and contemporary narratives too. This is one of the best places to go in London to see the story of the UK becoming a dominant power in Europe brought to life in art form. Wrapped up in this are motifs of naval power and prosperity. Another interesting theme of the painting is the story of the Protestant ascension to the throne.  When you visit, listen to a talk from an expert guide about the Painted Hall to see these various threads brought to life.

The Painted Hall in London

The Painted Hall through the ages

Before and after Thornhill made this the place to go in London for art lovers, it had several very different lives. One was supposed to be as an ornate dining room for naval pensioners. In reality, it was operated as a showroom for paying visitors or an elaborate function room.

For history buffs, one of its most interesting uses was as the location for the lying-in-state of Vice-Admiral, Lord Nelson. In 1806 large crowds descended on what’s now the Painted Hall to catch a glimpse of the hero’s body. Visit The Old Royal Naval College today and you can spot a plaque that marks the exact spot where Nelson lay.

Next, it was given over to the National Gallery of Naval Art where Thornhill’s work was nestled between the likes of J.M.W Turner. And finally, when the Greenwich Pensioners left and the officers from the Royal Naval College arrived, it became a dining area. Visit today for a tour that takes you through the ages and into the unique stories behind the painting.