Dazzling in execution, epic in scale, breathtaking in its newly restored glory, this is Britain’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
It’s a spectacular tribute, not to the glory of God as in the Vatican, but to the power and bombast of our Kings and Queens.
It is sumptuous, knock-your-socks-off, dynastic propaganda.
The Popes in Rome had Michelangelo; our Royal Family had Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734).
Here, in the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, South-East London, he worked for 19 years until 1727 to cover every inch of wall and ceiling with elaborate scenes glorifying the reigns of William III and Queen Mary, Anne, and George I, in a hall designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
The richly detailed scheme promotes the strength of the Royal Navy, the Empire and the ‘soft’ power of the country’s merchants.
A gallery assistant poses in The Painted Hall, which has been restored as part of a conservation project, at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich in the Upper Hall ceiling, with Queen Anne and husband Prince George of Denmark framed by figures representing Europe, Asia, America and Africa
Never was a PR man so gorgeously grandiloquent as Thornhill.
Like Michelangelo, he used a wooden scaffold to reach the ceiling. He would have stood or knelt beneath it, and wouldn’t have been able to see the full effect until the scaffolding was taken down.
A team of masons, plasterers and decorative painters helped bring it to life, and although a German, Dietrich Ernst Andreae, may have painted the royal portraits, Thornhill took all the credit.
For years, day-trippers have ignored the hall. Instead, they visit the nearby Observatory to stand astride the Greenwich Meridian Line, marking the Earth’s east hemisphere from the west.
In the Painted Hall, soot from decades of candles, combined with ten slapdash restorations and re-varnishings, had blackened the surface of the paintings and spoiled the purity of the colours.
Hanoverian hero: George I on the West Wall on the far right, a self-portrait of artist James Thornhill
Now, after two years’ renovation, curators have completed an £8.5 million, 3,400 sq m project to restore the paintings to their former brilliance.
They began by removing the sheen caused by microscopic cracking and lifting layers of varnish.
Other cleaning techniques employed cotton pads, distilled water and a patient hand — without any solvents that could have stripped layers of paint below.
So, move over Michelangelo! Art and history lovers should go to Greenwich and lie on the oak day-beds kindly made available to look up and marvel.
TRICKING THE EYE
The ‘trompe l’oeil’ (‘tricking the eye’) style creates the illusion of a classical palace under a dome that opens to reveal a celestial scene of Queen Anne and her husband the Prince of Denmark, framed in an ornate oval held by gorgeous female figures.
They represent the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, Justice.
A detail on the ceiling is pictured in The Painted Hall, which has been restored as part of a conservation project, at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich
The Hanoverian succession is assured by the arrival of George I — depicted with the king resting his elbow on a globe representing his dominions. His children play at his feet as a cornucopia of ripe fruit spills down marble steps.
HURRAH FOR WILLIAM AND MARY
After decades of political instability, the hall sounded the trumpets for William and Mary as King and Queen of England after their accession in 1689.
They’re enthroned in the painted heavens of the ceiling.
A maiden represents Concord (harmony between nations) above Mary, while Peace hands William an olive branch.
William offers the red Cap of Liberty to a bare-breasted personification of Europe. Beneath the King’s feet, the monster Tyranny crouches defeated.
Thornhill celebrates the successful transition from the Stuarts (William III and Mary, and Anne) to the Hanoverians (George I, who took the throne in 1714) ensuring peace and prosperity.
The vast stern of a man-of-war appears to sail through the west end of the ceiling — symbolising the might of the Royal Navy. An angel holds a roll-call of victories, starting with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
The painting has been restored to its original blues, pinks, crimsons, warm honey and ochre colours — described by one art historian as a ‘happy palette’.
Thornhill put himself into the painting — in a pink frock-coat beside a pillar.
WHO WAS THORNHILL?
Sir James was the son of a Dorset grocer who abandoned his wife and children. He also worked on great houses such as Chatsworth in Derbyshire and on backdrops for London operas. His flattery of the monarchy saw him knighted.
Power couple: William and Mary on the Lower Hall ceiling, surrounded by mythical creatures
His pupil, William Hogarth, fell in love with his 15-year-old daughter and they married without parental consent.
READY FOR ITS CLOSE-UP
The hall has often been used as a film-set. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman waltzed below the ceiling in the 1958 movie Indiscreet.
Nigel Hawthorne lost his marbles here as George III in The Madness Of King George, while Johnny Depp was dragged from the hall under arrest as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates Of The Caribbean.