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Greenwich's 'Sistine Chapel' shines again

Words:
George Grylls

Hugh Broughton Architects has excelled itself with its sumptuous conservation work at the Old Royal Naval College's Painted Hall

Sir James Thornhill’s ‘Sistine Chapel’ painting adorns Wren-Hawksmoor’s dining hall.
Sir James Thornhill’s ‘Sistine Chapel’ painting adorns Wren-Hawksmoor’s dining hall. Credit: James Brittain

The Spirit of Architecture is painted to look like a schoolteacher. She reprimands the monarch with the help of some cherubs. In her hands she bears an elevation of the King William dome at the Old Royal Naval College.

‘She’s saying there’s still work to be done,’ says William Palin, craning his head to analyse the gaudy brushstrokes on the ceiling. ‘The chapel still hasn’t been finished!’

Palin similarly understands how to petition authorities to cough up. As conservation director at Greenwich’s Unesco World Heritage Site, he secured £3.1 million of lottery funding to renovate the Painted Hall. That formed part of a larger £8.5 million fundraising campaign that saw Hugh Broughton Architects appointed to the task.

‘We’ve always had a weird practice,’ says Broughton. ‘Half the time we do Antarctic research stations. Half the time we do massive conservation projects.’

Massive conservation projects do not get much more massive than this. The Painted Hall is the ‘Sistine Chapel’ of the UK. Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor designed the cavernous clerestoried dining hall. Sir James Thornhill lavishly covered its ceilings with celestial images of the protestant royalty.

But the images were growing fuzzy. Under assault from UV damage, humidity and temperature fluctuations, the varnishes had worn away. It was an ongoing problem. Every 50 years the varnishes had to be replaced.

‘It was just too leaky,’ says Martin Ashley, surveyor of the fabric at Greenwich and collaborator on the project. ‘We have had the ability to break the damaging cycle.’

In the hall itself, a new heating system has been installed and discreet blinds now shield the precious interior from the sun’s damaging rays. But the biggest change has been the entrance. Previously visitors entered the Painted Hall straight from the street, bringing in humidity and all sorts of invisible pollutants.

Now they enter through the Undercroft – an environmental and psychological buffer that prepares them for the baroque splendour ahead.

In place of a clunky kitchen and naval mess, Hugh Broughton has exposed Hawksmoor’s subterranean vaults and excavated space for a café, a shop and a small exhibition space. In a muted palette of cream, beige and bronze, the space maintains a sense of airiness and calm through a series of light touches: the banquettes are perforated to dampen any echoes and Hawksmoor’s columns are left beautifully exposed amid all the re-plastering.

  • The restored Undercroft now houses the café and shop.
    The restored Undercroft now houses the café and shop. Credit: James Brittain
  • The small antechamber now acts as an exhibition space and ‘airlock’ to the Painted Hall.
    The small antechamber now acts as an exhibition space and ‘airlock’ to the Painted Hall. Credit: James Brittain
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And at the far end of the Undercroft, a thin glass screen has been stretched across the room. On the other side is a small exhibition space that acts as an antechamber. You can take a deep breath before ascending to the Painted Hall above. The screen interacts well with Hawksmoor’s architecture. Columns pleasingly pop out of a shadowing of plaster that hides the joint. Made by the Milanese firm Cappoferri, the craftsmanship more than does justice to the original ironmongery of the windows.

Broughton has proved an adept orchestrator of craftspeople. John Weaver’s joinery is bespoke. Bill Amberg’s banquettes hug the walls. John Desmond has created a sweeping brass handrail that frames the newly-discovered remains of Henry VIII’s original palace. Only Mike Stoane’s light fittings seem a bit timid.

Great glass pendulums hang throughout the Old Royal Naval College, so an offering from the Alvar Aalto catalogue does not quite do justice to the space.
But upstairs craft is in evidence once again. The renovation allowed the hall to lose its trestle tables. They were replaced by Dan Miles’ sumptuous oak daybeds. Visitors can now lie in the middle of the room, look up, and thank the Spirit of Architecture for fighting the fight. Conservation projects such as these are simply invaluable. They are worth every penny. 

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