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The Painted Hall Through Time

A Baroque masterpiece known as 'Britain's Sistine Chapel'

The Painted Hall boasts one of the most spectacular Baroque interiors in Europe. The incredible ceiling and wall decorations were conceived and executed by British artist Sir James Thornhill.

The epic painting scheme, known as ‘Britain’s Sistine Chapel’ took nineteen years from the start of the commission to its completion in 1726. By turns extravagant, playful, thoughtful, naïve and politically shrewd, Thornhill’s scheme earned him a knighthood and payment of £6,685.

Painting techniques

Thornhill used a variety of techniques such as trompe l’oeil (‘trick the eye’) and chiaroscuro (contrast of light and dark) to enliven his paintings. His use of illusionistic architecture and steep perspective was inspired by Italian baroque painting.

The many lives of the Painted Hall

Ceremonial dining room and visitor attraction

The grandeur of the composition, which covers 40,000 square feet, reflects the importance of the new Royal Hospital’s main Hall. Originally intended as a grand dining room for the naval pensioners, it soon became a ceremonial space open to paying visitors and reserved for special functions.

Nelson’s lying-in-state

Perhaps the most significant function was the lying-in-state of Lord Nelson in January 1806 drawing large crowds to view the hero’s body. The exact spot where the coffin lay is marked by a plaque on the floor.

National Gallery of Naval Art

For a hundred years from 1824 the Hall was given over to the first National Gallery of Naval Art. Thornhill’s painted interior assumed secondary importance to more than 300 paintings by artists such as J.M.W. Turner and Sir Joshua Reynolds.

College dining hall

The last Greenwich Pensioners left the site in 1869 when it became home to the Royal Naval College, an officers’ training academy. From 1937 to 1997 the Painted Hall functioned as a dining space for trainee officers of the Royal Navy.