BY YANN TEAR
The Painted Hall at Greenwich’s famous Old Royal Naval College will reopen on March 23 after a two -year conservation project which has brought its magnificent painted interior vividly back to life.
The vast decorated ceiling, extending nearly 4,000sq metres, is a masterpiece of English baroque art, which has given it the unofficial tag of The Sistine Chapel of the UK.
The £8.5million conservation project, supported by a £3.1million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), has reversed years of decay and conserved the Painted Hall for generations to come.
Between 2017 and 2018, an accessible observation deck gave more than 80,000 visitors the opportunity to observe up close the conservators at work on the complex designs of Sir James Thornhill, which were realised between 1707 and 1726.
Its reopening is part of a transformation project by Hugh Broughton Architects, which has touched on other parts of Christopher Wren’s wondrous riverside complex.
The work undertaken will also see the reopening of the King William crypt beneath the Painted Hall, which will house a café, shop and educational gallery – The Sackler Gallery.
Talks led by an expert team of staff and volunteers throughout the day will also help to bring the paintings to life, alongside a collection of objects inspired by characters and items depicted on the ceiling, which visitors will be able to touch and try on.
Adult tickets will cost £12, with unlimited re-entry for up to a year. U16s go free, with some concessions available.
Local school groups will continue to visit for free as part of the schools and education programme. The extensive grounds, visitor centre, Chapel and the King William Undercroft (crypt) will be accessible to all for free.
From April, the site will introduce a initiative to ensure the Painted Hall remains as accessible to as many people as possible with its pay as you wish every first Wednesday of each month.
Angela McConville, chief executive of the Old Royal Naval College, said: “We are hugely excited to be able to reveal the beautifully conserved Painted Hall to the public.
“We care for the greatest ensemble of baroque buildings and landscape in the UK and we welcome over one million visitors and students to this special place every year.
“We passionately believe that the story of Greenwich starts here, on this magnificent site, and so it is a great delight that through this epic project, below and above the ground, we are revealing 500 years of history.
“Our new visitor experience will, we believe, bring delight and stimulate curiosity for many more visitors and be a place for locals to enjoy again and again.”
The ground-breaking project started in 2016. It was one of the largest conservation projects in Europe. As the painted surfaces were cleaned, new details were uncovered which revealed how Thornhill planned and executed his vast work.
Shadows of corrected details appeared behind later paint layers and large areas of beautifully detailed history painting emerged from behind dirt and decay.
As many as 30 signatures from previous ‘restorers’ were studied at close quarters, including one indelicately placed on the bosom of Mary II, revealing 300 years of almost continuous cleaning.
William Palin, Painted Hall project director at the Old Royal Naval College, said: “This project has been an epic undertaking and represents a huge collaborative effort.
“The sheer scale and complexity of the project meant that we were constantly seeking innovative solutions – from the carefully developed conservation techniques to the design of the vast internal scaffolding, which had to be fully accessible for the visiting public.
“The transformation of the Undercroft space below has brought one of Britain’s great historic spaces back into use, providing a beautiful prelude to the wonder of the Painted Hall above.”
A series of finely carved oak benches, made when the Hall served as an art gallery in the 19th century, and removed 100 years ago, will return as part of a new collection of elegant furniture which will allow visitors to sit in comfort and experience the beauty and wonder of Thornhill’s masterpiece.
The King William Undercroft, a grandly-proportioned vaulted space – mirroring the plan of the Painted Hall above and designed by Wren and his Clerk of Works, Nicholas Hawksmoor – has been lovingly restored to its original form.
Some 20th-century additions, including part of a large modern kitchen, have been removed to reveal the majesty of the space and the beauty of the baroque architectural details.
This space, originally used as a day-to-day dining room for the naval pensioners, will now house a shop, café and The Sackler Gallery, where visitors can learn about the history and meaning of Thornhill’s work.