The Chapel in Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College contains the last major painting by Benjamin West to survive in its original location, and this summer, the public will be able to watch a restoration project on the massive altar painting.

Painted in 1789, Benjamin West’s epic ‘Preservation of St Paul after a Shipwreck at Malta’ is one of the artist’s most important works. Today it requires urgent conservation.

At a colossal 25 x 14 feet, the floor to ceiling painting depicts the scene in the Acts of the Apostles in which Saint Paul is shipwrecked on his way to Rome where he will be prosecuted. At the centre of the painting, Paul stands heroically over the fire lit by the ship’s passengers to keep warm. Intruding on the scene is the snake from whose poisonous bite Paul miraculously feels no effect. The maritime scene would have been appropriate for the Chapel, which served naval pensioners, many of whom might have recognised their own experiences in West’s narrative.

From 9th May 2022 until the end of August, visitors to the Chapel will have a rare opportunity to see first-hand conservationists at work to restore the painting.

Following a programme of investigation by painting conservators, Paine and Stewart, it’s been decided that a full surface clean of the painting’s surface will be necessary. Adhering to the principle of minimal intervention, the primary intention will be to retain the existing varnish.

Dust residue and other surface debris has compromised the aesthetic qualities of this painting and there is a significant reduction of the original luminosity of the pigments, as well as a flattening of the powerful 3-dimensionality of the figures. The elaborate frame, designed by Richard Lawrence, suffers from localised damage along its lower edge and an overall distribution of dust and grime also significantly compromises the visual quality of the frame.

The Chapel is open daily between 10am and 5pm, but note that it is a working chapel, so will host services on Sundays, and sometimes has private events, so best to double-check on their website if making a special visit.

The Chapel is next to the Painted Hall.

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