Sunday 10 March 2013

Conservation up close

The Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich is one of Britain's baroque masterpieces. It has also spent the last three centuries as a tourist attraction, so the elaborate decoration has not had an easy time! 

Back in the site's days as the Royal Hospital, it needed a dining hall. Architect Sir Christopher Wren and artist James Thornhill worked together here as they already had on St Paul's Cathedral (where Thornhill painted scenes from the life of St Paul inside its dome). It took nineteen years - which must have made his employers glad they were paying Thornhill by the square yard rather than the hour. In 1727 the work was finally completed.

The lavishly-painted room with its pillars and carved wood was, however, considered a rather elaborate space for naval veterans to eat their dinner. Instead of dining in it, the Pensioners got to act as tour guides for paying visitors.

And the visitors have been coming ever since. In 1806, they could pay their respects to Nelson who lay in state here, three months after dying at the Battle of Trafalgar. During most of the nineteenth century, they got to look at naval paintings - later part of the original National Maritime Museum collection. Today, the decoration is the main attraction. 

Step into the hall, and at first sight its walls and ceilings are covered in painting. On closer inspection, the huge design on the west wall, depicting George I and his family surrounded by flattering symbolism, is actually a reproduction hanging in front of the original. As part of a major conservation programme, the painting is being cleaned.  Look up and you catch a glimpse of the scaffolding. 

If you're lucky, and have booked a place on one of the regular free tours, you'll be taken behind the scenes, given a hard hat and high-visibility vest, and allowed to ascend the scaffolding to see the conservators at work. I went along and not only learned about the careful inspection and cleaning taking place, but also got a much closer look at the images than is usually possible. 

A book is revealed to be Newton's Principia, with diagrams sketched on its pages. 

An outstretched hand is almost imperceptibly shadowed by a ghostly version of itself - the original limb, later overpainted. 

Not every brushstroke is Thornhill's: he worked with a team of artists, some specialising in particular subjects such as flowers.

The architectural background was painted first, then the figures. Sometimes, that is obvious at close range: here, background details show through an ethereally pale hand.

They painted directly onto the plaster, itself covering wooden laths. Some of these are visible at the edges, once the scaffolding puts you at eye-level with them. 

Carefully cleaning this huge and delicate work is a demanding task. However, it is also much quicker than we perhaps imagine; modern materials and techniques help. Some of the work has also proved to be in better condition than expected.

The Old Royal Naval College deserve credit not only for ensuring that the conservation work does little to detract from visits to the hall, but also for allowing the public to take such a close look behind the scenes. There will be further stages to the project in future, if sufficient funding can be found. All donations are gratefully received - but entrance to the hall, and even the tours, remain free.

Further reading: Details of the tours are here and there's more about the appeal hereThe Londonphile visited in January, so her photos show a slightly earlier stage of the work. More of my images are on flickr.

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