Apart from the park, the observatory and the “replica” sailing ship, Greenwich is home to one of the grandest painted halls in the world.
Originally intended to be a simple dining room for the Greenwich maritime pensioners, and plainly decorated, the Hospital Governors decided to have it decorated during its construction in honour of William and Mary instead.
It was immediately a tourist attraction, and one-and-off, they’ve charged an admission fee to go inside since at least 1720, which isn’t bad considering the Painted Hall wasn’t even finished at the time. Described as the UK’s own Sistine Chapel, Greenwich’s Painted Hall has been drawing visitors to the area ever since. Unlike the Sistine Chapel though, here in Greenwich you’re allowed to take photos.
You used to go in via the main entrance, and then spend ages looking up and getting a sore neck, or looking down in the mirrors while sitting on the benches that filled the room with their huge dining tables.
But all that has gone, as the painting of the Painted Hall underwent a substantial clean and restoration which closed the hall to casual visitors, even as it gave us the rare opportunity to climb the scaffolding to get up close to the ceiling.
It opened a few months ago, and where it used to be free to visit, they’ve reinstated the entry charge.
Entry is also now via the undercroft which used to be private but now houses the modest cafe and shop — and the unexpectedly discovery of part of King Henry VIII’s original palace which stood on the site.
It’s worth lingering a bit down here as there are a series of information panels that help to give you some idea of what you’re about to see, and its significance.
And then up to the hall itself.
Much has been written about the decoration of the hall, how it glorified Protestant victories over the Catholics and was a propaganda tool in protecting the newly enthroned William and Mary from the King over the Water.
The paintings themselves are rich in meaning and allegory, with allusions to Gods and Science mixed in with patriotism and the rule of the Monarchy. And famously, the painter, James Thornhill painted himself into the work, and quite noticeably as well.
They’ve also swept away the old dining tables that used to fill the hall, and now long benches line the walls and seats fill the centre. While that does open up more space to admire the painting, I think I prefered the dining tables as that reminded us of the Hall’s other purpose.
Dazzled by the hall, it’s too easy to miss the other great wonder in here, the impressively decorated dome above the old entrance at the foot of the steps.
Also easy to miss is the side room, and while the door is open, it looks not entirely like it’s supposed to be open, but go inside for there’s something rather special in here.
Apart from the painting, the hall is also famous for the Lying in State of the Admiral Lord Nelson. And in here is a copy of the original model used for Nelson’s statue right up on top of Trafalgar Square.
A part of Trafalgar Square here in Greenwich.
If you want those empty photos, get up early and get in first, as it started to fill up fairly soon after I visited.
Do also notice the tables in the cafe – decorated with images from the paintings on the ceiling upstairs, which is a nice touch. And it’s very easy to miss, but look for the toilets, as that’ll take you down a long tunnel that leads to the chapel. It’s a nice thing to walk down, even if there’s nothing at the end to see — it’s a tunnel, that’s what matters.
Entry is now £12 for adults / Under 16s Free / Students & Concessions £8.50. All tickets are valid for unlimited re-entry up to a year after purchase.
There is also a ‘Pay as you wish’ every first Wednesday of the month, and free entry of the first Wednesday of the month if you present a Lottery ticket for that week.