VISIT TO GREENWICH OBSERVATORY
23rd May 2019
VISIT TO GREENWICH OBSERVATORY
23rd May 2019
A visit to Greenwich via a boat ride down the Thames
by Liz Ward (Painter-Stainers)
It was a lovely balmy late spring morning when we set off from Westminster pier on the Thames
Clipper towards Greenwich to visit The Queen’s House and The Painted Hall. Passing by the familiar City buildings, then the Tower of London, under Tower Bridge and finally Canary Wharf we arrived at Greenwich welcomed by the sight of the famous Tea Clipper, Cutty Sark, and the imposing buildings of the Old Royal Naval College designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Nestled neatly between the domed courts of Queen Mary and King William appears the Queen’s
House, designed by Inigo Jones for Anne of Denmark, the queen of King James I.
There has been a Palace at Greenwich since the 15th Century and the original brick built
Greenwich Palace was the birthplace of Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I. It fell into disrepair during
the English Civil War and was finally demolished in 1694.
In 1613 James I gave the site of Greenwich to his Danish Queen Anne, reportedly in apology for
losing his temper after she accidentally shot his favourite dog while hunting! However, she didn’t
live long enough to see the house completed; that joy was saved for Queen Henrietta Maria, the
wife of Charles I.
In 1692 the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich was created on the site on the instructions of
Mary II, who had been inspired by the sight of the sailors returning from the Battle of La Hogue. It
was the naval equivalent of the Royal Hospital for soldiers at Chelsea, also designed by Sir
Christopher Wren. Architectural highlights include the Chapel which is in the Court of Queen Mary
and the Painted Hall which is in the Court of King William. Both have domes above their respective
entrances and sit opposite each other providing a vista from the Thames to the Queen’s House with
the Royal Observatory behind, at the top of Greenwich Park.
The two storey Great Hall is the centre of the Queen’s House, with a floor of black and white marble
and a galleried landing from which the rooms radiate. The ceiling is an exquisitely executed pattern
of repeated decorative motifs in gold leaf commissioned from the Turner Prize winner Richard
Wright, based on his interpretation of the Tulip Stairs.
Most of the rooms would have been bedrooms or anterooms, but now house the art collection
featuring paintings of the Kings and Queens connected with Greenwich and many admirals and
pictures of The Fleet and various battles by Van Dyke, Canaletto and Turner to name but a few.
Henrietta Maria commissioned a rather magnificent painted ceiling for her bedroom, the only one
in the Queen’s House. One leaves the top floor of the house by a stunningly beautiful spiral staircase
called the Tulip Stairs, named after the wrought-iron design of the rails. It is believed to be the
earliest example of centrally unsupported stairs in England.
After our visit to the house we had lunch at the Old Brewery which was a very welcome interlude;
then onto the Painted Hall.
The Painted Hall was built as a grand ceremonial dining room for the Royal Naval Hospital. The
artist, Sir James Thornhill, was a past Master Painter-Stainer and his painted interior is considered to
be the masterpiece of English Baroque art. It features spectacular wall and ceiling decorations
with William III & Mary II, the founders of the Royal Hospital, at the centre celebrating Britain’s
political stability, commercial prosperity and naval power. The Painted Hall has recently undergone
a total restoration and is looking stunningly vivid. There are a number of mirrored tables with which
to see the ceiling reflected without getting neck ache, or alternatively you can lie down on one of
the red leather covered benches to view it in comfort!
There is a small anteroom just off the Painted Hall where the body of Admiral Lord Nelson was
prepared (it had been transported back from Spain in a barrel of fortified wine), before his official
lying in state in the Painted Hall. This little room contains a statue of Nelson replicating the one in
We were all too exhausted after this to make the steep walk up to the Observatory, but Greenwich
is well worth another visit to see The Chapel and another chance to see the magnificent Painted
Hall ceiling again.