The Old Royal Naval College was not built as a palace for the purposes of social status, but rather as a set of public buildings to be used for charitable purposes. Queen Mary II wanted a place that would serve disabled and injured seamen in a similar way to how the Royal Hospital at Chelsea served army soldiers.
The College was designed by Christopher Wren ( the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral ) and Nicholas Hawksmoor, his student, also worked on the project. It was built on the site of the old Tudor Bella Court built in the 1440’s, and subsequently renamed the Palace of Placentia or “Palace of Pleasure”. Sometimes referred to as the Greenwich Palace. King Henry VIII had been born here, as was his daughter Queen Elizabeth I. Wren envisaged a huge Versailles-like set of buildings, but in the end a scaled-down version is what was built in an elegant, baroque style complete with the iconic twin domes.
THE PAINTED HALL
The Painted Hall was built by Wren between 1696 and 1704. Sir James Thornhill, who had also decorated Wren’s dome at St. Paul’s, commenced work on the Hall in 1708 and was completed some 19 years later. The result was a magnificent though eclectic ceiling mural with references to modern history as well as ancient mythology. In addition, Thornhill painted the West Wall showing George I of the German House of Hanover surrounded by his children and grandchildren. St. Paul’s is depicted in the background as is the artist himself, in the lower right of the mural.
Lord Nelson, following his death at the Battle of Trafalgar, was brought here in early 1806 to lie in state for three days, when thousands came to pay their respects to England’s maritime hero. Tourists subsequently flocked to the site, but in 1824 the Hall became the National Gallery of Naval Art housing paintings which were later moved to the new Maritime Museum which opened in the 1930’s. From that time onwards, the Hall was used regularly as a dining room by Royal Navy officers until the Navy departed in 1998.
The first Chapel was finally completed in 1751 and was a much plainer looking building than we see now. In 1779 a huge fire gutted the building. The current Chapel was rebuilt by James “Athenian” Stuart, so called because of his love of the ancient Greeks and their buildings which he had seen first hand during a visit to Greece in the 1760’s. The style is referred to as neo-classical or Greek Revival. For example, the ceiling has a distinctly Wedgewood-look to it, complete with the blue colour.
The interior details and furnishings are exquisite. For example, the pulpit is a lovely mixture of oak, mahogany and lime-wood detailing. The organ, made out of Spanish mahogany, was built by Samuel Green, who was the leading organ maker of his day. Throughout, Stuart uses a technique called “Trompe l’oeil” ì or trick of the eye. For example, columns which look like they are made from marble are in fact made from an artificial mix called Scagliola.
The painting above the Altar, is by the American-born artist Benjamin West. He depicts St. Paul, a prisoner of the Romans, being taken as a prisoner from Jerusalem to Rome, is shown on the island of Malta casting a viper from his arm, unharmed much to the amazement of onlookers. Finally, the Chapel was reopened in 1789.The Chapel is still in regular use today with Sunday services as well as music concerts and recitals by Trinity College, taking advantage of the room’s excellent acoustics.
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