The Guardian’s “50 best views in England” (taken from Simon Jenkins’ recent book) was published recently and unsurprisingly, Greenwich was among them. The view in question of course, is that seen from atop the hill at the Greenwich Royal Observatory looking north towards the River Thames.
We see immediately below us Queen’s House, the Italian-style villa created by the multitalented Inigo Jones in the early 17th Century. Today, the House serves as the art gallery for Royal Museums Greenwich, containing paintings of the James Cook voyages as well as Canaletto’s famous view of Greenwich, painted from the Isle of Dogs side of the river. Framing everything are the iconic twin domes of the Royal Hospital for Seamen, designed by Sir Christopher Wren . Queen Mary had always wanted a hospital for disabled seamen comparable to that for the army at Royal Hospital Chelsea. Following her untimely death, her husband King William of Orange commissioned Wren (who had experience two decades earlier in Greenwich designing the Observatory for Charles II) in 1695. A key stipulation of the King was that in no way was the “royal view” from Queens House to the river to be obstructed. And it is from this advice from his client, that undoubtedly motivated Wren and his assistant Hawksmoor to come up with their elegant twin dome solution that we now enjoy.
Indeed the architectural result is, as Simon Jenkins so rightly puts it, nothing less than “sheer class”. And yet London has always progressed with a mix of the old with the new. On the wastelands of the decaying Docklands, it was a Canadian developer ( the Bronfmans from Toronto ) who built Canary Wharf from scratch, in the early 90’s. The name itself comes from the fact that it was at the old Canary Wharf, where ships from the Canary Islands regularly unloaded their fresh fruit and vegetables for Londoners.
Indeed, one might say that it is this very juxtaposition of the new with the traditional, that makes the view of Greenwich today – truly sensational!