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Tour the Painted Hall at Old Royal Naval College, the ‘British Sistine Chapel’

Get up close and personal with a Baroque masterpiece in the ‘finest dining hall in Europe’

Painted Hall, at the Old Royal Naval College
A conservator poses during a photocall to promote the restoration project of the ceiling of the Painted Hall, at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, London on March 30, 2017. Over the next two years, conservators will work on ceiling's painted surface, painted between 1707 and 1726 by the artist Sir James Thornhill. Visitors will also have an opportunity to see the ceiling close up through a series of tours from April 1.
AFP Photo/Ben Stansall

Its been called the Sistine Chapel of London, though the artist in question never approached the iconic status of Michelangelo. And unlike the work of the Renaissance master, the elaborate ceiling design at London’s Old Royal Naval College will be given a very public display as part of a unique new tour.

As part of a long-term renovation project to restore the original luster of this early 18th century Baroque artwork, visitors to the Old Royal Naval College will be able to get personal with the paintings. After ascending 60 feet up ladders and scaffolding, art lovers can get a close look at this stunning work of art, one of the largest painted ceilings in Northern Europe, and witness the in-process restoration (expected to cost $13.1 million when finished). It’s a rare chance to see how a masterpiece from the past is prepared for the future.

“The Painted Hall is one of Britain’s greatest architectural and artistic treasures,” conservation director William Palin told the Evening Standard, “but it is too little known.”

Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College
The rectangular Lower Hall photographed in 1992
Gregor Kobelkoff: Flickr/Creative Commons

The colorful murals of Sir James Thornhill illuminate the Painted Hall with images of naval battles, royalty, and Greek gods and zodiac figures. The ceiling and its hundreds of characters actually expands beyond the spacious Lower Hall to cover a smaller Upper Hall and a domed vestibule, often animating the interior in stunning examples of trompe l’oeil. In a room that offers such a striking view—both the Queen’s House and the Thames can be seen from this vista—the artwork is a draw in and of itself.

Thornhill labored for nearly 20 years to complete the frescos, a commission he won in 1706 in part due to being one of the few prominent British artists competing for the high-profile commission (he also decorated the dome of St Paul's Cathedral in London). The building itself, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, opened in 1694 as a grand dining hall for the Royal Hospital of the Seaman, the British version of Paris’s Hôtel des Invalides. A grand entrance and ceiling, the theory went, would impress wealthy guests, and ideally inspire them to make donations.

In the preceding decades, the hall served as an art gallery and even a mess hall for the college (remnants of earlier food fights once stained the walls).

Painted Hall at Old Royal Naval College
Thornhill’s paintings often featured then-contemporary monarchs. This sections includes figures of the German-born King George I surrounded by his family. Thornhill himself is depicted at bottom right.
Roman Hobler: Flicks/Creative Commons

The current restoration project seeks to correct a midcentury mistake. Coast of varnish, added in the ‘50s, have been blurring and obscuring the artwork below. Guests who take the tour get so close they can almost touch the workspaces where restoration workers are repairing the delicate paint and plaster.

The hour-long “ceiling tours” helps raise funds to cover the remaining $2.5 million shortfall. As the hall’s artwork and main attraction are repaired and restored, a new entrance and lighting will be installed to transform the space into a more contemporary tourist attraction. It’s probably a safe bet any visitors cafe will, in a break from tradition, be located a safe distance from the artwork.