MOVE OVER, MICHELANGELO
It’s not often that you get to experience a true once in a lifetime opportunity, especially if it’s right on your doorstep (or in my case, 5 minutes from home). For the past four years the incredible ceiling of the Painted Hall in the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich has been covered in scaffolding, undergoing somewhat of a spruce-up to conserve this 300-year-old masterpiece. Tomorrow, on Saturday 29th September, the scaffolding will be slowly taken down and shut to the public, and with it, the opportunity to see the ceiling within touching distance.
Oft described as finer than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, little-known Baroque painter Sir James Thornhill (in comparison to his Italian counterpart – albeit by 200 years – Michelangelo) is the man behind the masterpiece. Now having seen it up close, I can truly say that it is exactly that, a masterpiece.
Prior to his putting paintbrush to ceiling – and the inevitable neck ache that must have caused – this hall was once destined to be the dining area of the old sea dogs for whom this incredible building was first commissioned. A rather regal setting for a seaman’s hospital right on the bank of the Thames (it was originally the site of Greenwich Palace, birthplace of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I no less), when the hall was completed in c. 1707 it was soon decided that the space was too vast for the sailors’ comfort. They simply weren’t used to eating in such grand surroundings in comparison to the small and cramped conditions on board. It was therefore decided to turn the hall into a ‘tourist attraction’, and as I would find out, one huge piece of propaganda for the new monarch, George I.
The early C18th wasn’t a particularly favourable time for the monarchy. For nearly 300 years there hadn’t been a single direct descendent taking over the throne. Early deaths, childless marriages, and the law against a Catholic being on the throne (or even a Monarch marrying a Catholic, a law only expunged in 2015!), meant there was no stability and no respect for those proclaiming regency.
Step in George I. Upon Queen Anne’s death – and that of her 19 children – George was the closest in line to the throne that wasn’t either dead, dying, or Catholic. In fact, he stood at 58th in line. To his new subjects he was as well known to them as the Hon. Edward Lascelles is to us. To top that off, he wasn’t even British. He was Hanoverian and couldn’t speak a word of English, even though he was already quite the polyglot. He just didn’t want to learn, nor succeed the British throne, preferring to stay in rural Germany. It is said that the first English he was taught was while on the boat en route to London, “I have come to be good for all of you.” As he disembarked, he, intentionally or not, remarked, “I have come for all your goods.”
To say he wasn’t popular is an understatement. But he did have a certain USP. A son. And a grandson. Both in good health, and with a growing brood. He could provide successors to the throne.
What has this got to do with my tour of the ceiling? Everything. The whole iconography, although primarily as a celebration of the British Admiralty – Britannia Rules the Waves and all that – it was to associate the historic successes of William and Mary, victors over the French, with George to try and garner some form of respect by proxy.
On the back wall of the Painted Hall sits George, surrounded by his family, with personifications of Destiny, Peace, Fate, Providence… Thornhill went all out. The scene is framed by a large Latin motto: IAM NOVA PROGENIES COELO, roughly, “A new race has descended from the heavens.” Unknown to him, Thornhill had great foresight. Queen Elizabeth II is a direct descendent.
300 years on, the topic matter of the painting holds a little less weight. Its heavy use of propaganda means little to us. It is now time instead to celebrate the wonder that is Sir James Thornhill and his very talented hand.
I don’t know about you, but I have visited many galleries in my time, all over the world. I have stood in front of Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, gazed up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, stared at more Monet’s than you can shake a stick at. In fact, think of any well-known piece of art and I have probably made a pilgrimage to it. Yet right on my doorstep, here is one of the greatest executions of figurative painting I have ever seen. All this, while remembering that Thornhill was working 60ft high, painting above his head, in dim lighting, for an audience 60ft below.
I could see every brush stroke, every splodge of impasto. I could see where he painted various architectural elements in full and then painted figures over it to make sure his lines and proportions remained exact. None of this can be seen from below. From this honoured angle his figures look squat, their heads bulging and bodies short. But from a distance, from the floor, they are proportionally exact. Remarkable. There were even certain elements, certain specks of colour, that Thornhill painted even though they can’t be seen from the ground, such was his commitment to his art.
One of the most fascinating examples of this is in the far left corner; a portion of a scroll is painted, with an astronomical equation shown predicting a full eclipse for April 22, 1715. One year after the ceiling had even been painted. This was the work of John Flamsteed, first Astronomer Royale based at the Royal Observatory up the road. This may not appear so remarkable to us, we can predict the next full eclipse years in advance now, but at the time, it was pure magic. It is said that King Arthur first called Merlin a wizard after he predicted a full eclipse. Flamsteed, however, realised that Newton’s various astronomical theories were correct, and in turn used these for his predictions, much to the annoyance of the French for whom Newton’s work had been banned (this is not the ceiling for the Francophiles among you. The general theme is various victories over our dear neighbour.) Flamsteed was incorrect though. By 4.5 minutes. It was said that he was so distraught he never visited the Painted Hall again, even though the scroll is but a spec from below.
The skill and talent of a Baroque painter was more often than not awarded to those who could fit as many figures in a scene as possible without losing the story. 200 adorn just 30m2, and not a note is missed. The dynamism of the action is palpable. This was aided by the ceiling being made of plaster. Unlike the Sistine Chapel which was a fresco (painting on wet plaster so that you only had one chance to make the right stroke) Thornhill was able to take advantage of this completely flat surface, as well as the ability to build up his figures and decorative elements over days, rather than a precious few seconds.
As you can tell, I am still quite awe-struck.
If you haven’t been able to experience it for yourselves, once the Hall reopens sans scaffolding, it is still an incredible spectacle. Just take your binoculars.
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