Friday, 11 August 2017

Greenwich Old Royal Naval College – Painted Hall & Chapel

King William Walk
Greenwich SE10 9JF
Friday August 04 2017

When we visited the small exhibition giving the history of the Old Royal Naval College in the Visitors Centre we tried to tack on a visit to the actual college buildings which are usually open to the public – namely the Chapel and Dining Hall. The Chapel certainly was open but the Dining Hall is currently undergoing a major CONSERVATION  (NOT restoration ) project. However you can still visit, advisedly by prior booking, for a guided tour of the ceiling complete with hard hat and high-vis jacket. That makes it sound a lot more exciting than it is as the scaffolding platform is very sturdy, wide and stable and the 67 steps are no worse than using the stairs when the escalators fail .

Just a reminder of the history in case you weren’t paying attention in November, not to be outdone by Charles II and his Royal Hospital for Army pensioners at Chelsea, William II’s wife Mary was keen to do the same for mariners but sadly died before the building was completed so some of the inscriptions we saw being conserved and cleaned today were her husband making sure her memory and intentions for the foundation were honoured.

The exterior of the building is truly magnificent and best viewed from the middle of the Thames – and that was Wren’s brief – to encompass the whole vista from top to bottom with the two arms or wings allowing  the visitor to glimpse the already complete Queen Anne’s House halfway up the hill.

As for the inside, initially James Thornhill was a ‘cheap’ option as set against imported Italian workmen and apparently he was paid a £1 per square foot on the wall and £3 per sq foot on the ceiling. Out of this he paid any helpers and the materials.  Unlike most Italian ceilings this is not a fresco but oil paint applied to a plastered ceiling. In fact all things considered (dining sailors eating by candle light, smoking and throwing their food around) the ceiling is in quite good shape. The remarkably few cracks will be restored; the varnish that has deteriorated cleaned and re-applied, and the darker areas cleaned to become more visible, but not to the extent that there will be ‘visibly brighter’ spots but to maintain the integrity of the whole art work.
In addition to explaining the aims of this very expensive conservation our guide Simon pointed out several ‘characters’ who certainly would not have been so evident from below.

Essentially the design consists of a large central oval where the most important people are and two semi-circular arches each with a ship ploughing the seas into which the key English rivers, as represented by their gods, flow. The perspective works in all directions: very cunning this. The rivers are all personified and come with their most famous products so the Severn with lampreys and the Tyne with coal.  The not so subtle subtext being what a productive country we are. No comment.   

The central oval is given over to the Royal Patrons surrounded by a variety of classical gods who double by portraying virtues that befit a reigning monarch – such as wisdom (Athena) or strength (Hercules –obvs.)   More interestingly the guide pointed to a red cap which stood for Liberty (as seen on the French Revolutionaries) and the leg of William grinding the face of tyranny (Louis XIV) under his foot. Interesting as you assume the crowned heads of Europe might stand together but I suppose that the so-called Glorious Revolution (with the monarch ruling with the consent of Parliament) counted as relative ‘Liberty’ compared to Louis’s absolutism. There was also a difference of religion standing in the way and historically the French and English are rarely on the same page as friends…

Apart from the rivers there are references to the four elements and four seasons – I’m not sure where the others were but Winter showed the fine head which one could immediately see was that of a real person – indeed a seaman pensioner by the name of John Worley. He had a somewhat rowdy reputation so having him ‘sit’ for James Thornhill kept him out of trouble for a while.

James almost certainly employed others to do some of the ‘hack’ work but to be fair the standard is extremely high and while I would not go as far as saying , as one observer did, this is greater than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel , it is a great achievement an d the women all look a good deal more womanly than any Michelangelo ever achieved ( the Pieta excepted). The sailors who wined dined and smoked under this ceiling until 1998 certainly appreciated their charms. 

Thornhill was encouraged to promote the nautical elements so down at ground level, in a more sombre grisaille, is a wealth of sea shells, anchors and ropes to adorn the sides and corners.

Once you have finished with the Painted Hall you are encouraged to cross the courtyard/quadrangle to have a look at the Chapel, beautifully free of scaffolding and with an equally impressive if very different ceiling, more rococo plasterwork. The building is beautifully proportioned with a well preserved floor and some impressive woodwork. Being a chapel there are memorials round the sides and entrance to both famous (John Franklin  the North West Passage explorer) and forgotten mariners..

Greenwich is always a treat as Wren’s waterside building never disappoints but it was a particular treat to get up into the ceiling of the painted hall and appreciate its details at leisure.  

Friday, 4 August 2017

Westminster Abbey

Monday 31 July 2017

While it's about time I took my turn after all the posts by Linda and the 63 Regular, it has taken me some days to get around to this one, because I am somewhat daunted by the grandeur and fascination of what we saw.  I initially thought I might write a one-liner: 'you really should go' but I realised that would not do. No photos inside, by the way, so do go to the website, and especially watch the video about Poets' Corner, which gives you a taste of the wealth of things to see in the Abbey.

I have mentioned before that I believe teaching to be the best job in the world;  but a totally unexpected bonus was a chance meeting with a former pupil, who proved to hold an impressive position at Westminster Abbey and who offered to show us round herself. The fact that she had attended the same academic institution as Roger though some years later, made it extra serendipitous. 

We arrived shortly before the first of the day's share of the 1,100,000 annual visitors, and spent some time looking at the shrine of Edward the Confessor, the High Altar, and various medieval royal tombs. Susan was able to take us into the shrine to get a closer look at the amazing Cosmati pavement.

But the high point (literally!) of the visit was an insight into the extraordinary project which is to be the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries. The modern lift which will give access to the remarkable museum space in the Triforium is not yet ready, but we were able to see the planning and detailed work which is going into this new treasure for London.

After a cup of coffee and a sight of the beautiful Litlyngton Missal in the Library, we let Susan return to her work, while we took the audio guides to visit the areas which we had not yet seen.  Although Poets' Corner is the famous area, there are several composers also memorialised on the floor so you need to look down as well as up.  We brooded over the fact that James I was able to pop his mother, Mary Queen of Scots in here, only a couple of decades after her execution for treason, and noted several places where closeness to the monarch in life helped to achieve a prime spot in death. We saw the Coronation Chair, now without the Stone of Scone which was returned to Scotland in 1996. We also paused by the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, with its surround of poppies. We thought the audio guides were clear and well done.

It's not only the memorials which show the Abbey forever renewing itself.  New stained glass windows also feature in several places.

After over four hours we felt we could do no more, but shall certainly be back when the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries are open. Residents of London tend not to visit the most iconic sites of their city (Linda had not been inside the Abbey the Cathedral since Primary School, for example, and I had only been as school party escort).  But this is really worth a visit.  It may seem expensive:  but the drama and beauty of the place, and the time you can spend there seeing (as Howard Carter said) 'wonderful things' makes it compare very favourably with some expensive, short and bizarre theatre experiences we have had recently. Do go:  but allow at least a whole morning.