Last chance for once-in-a-lifetime ceiling tours of ‘UK’s Sistine Chapel’ | Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich


Summer 2018 will be the public’s last chance to undertake once-in-a-lifetime ceiling tours of the Old Royal Naval College’s Painted Hall. On these unique tours, visitors ascend 60 feet to an observation deck, which places them in touching distance of one of the most spectacular Baroque interiors in Europe, known as ‘Britain’s Sistine Chapel’ and the largest painted ceiling in the UK.

This is a unique opportunity to view a live conservation project in a world heritage site, one that will not be available again for at least another 100 years. The final ceiling tour will take place on 30 September 2018 and Old Royal Naval College will mark the beginning of the last 100 days of the tours on 23 June 2018.

The Painted Hall was decorated by Sir James Thornhill, the first British artist to be knighted. It is the lavish centrepiece of the Old Royal Naval College, founded in 1694 by Mary II and designed by Christopher Wren. The ceiling was painted between 1707 and 1726, and celebrates Britain’s maritime power.

It uses a cast of hundreds of figures – historical, mythological, allegorical and contemporary – and features successive monarchs William III and Mary II, Anne and George I. It is considered the greatest Baroque decorative scheme in the UK, its triumphant scenes framed by painted architectural elements to trick the eye. Thornhill’s work subsequently won him important commissions at St Paul’s Cathedral and Blenheim Palace.

The National Lottery funded Painted Hall project has been live for two years. As well as the conservation work in the Hall itself, the spectacular Undercroft space below has been undergoing a major transformation with the creation of a new visitor centre, interpretation gallery and café, designed by Hugh Broughton Architects. The new developments will open to the public in early 2019.

During this time the Painted Hall observation deck has been allowing visitors the opportunity to see the masterpiece at close quarters and to observe the conservators at work. The conservators, led by Stephen Paine and Sophie Stewart have been systematically cleaning and conserving around 40,000 square feet of painted surface, on the ceilings and walls, bringing new life and vibrancy to paintings obscured by decades of decay. Environmental controls will help ensure no further intervention on the paintings will be necessary for many decades.

Alongside the conservation work, a programme of public engagement has been celebrating every element of the Painted Hall and its history, promoting skills, dialogue and independent discovery in the exploration of the universal stories and timeless themes of Sir James Thornhill’s paintings.

Angela McConville, Chief Executive of the Old Royal Naval College, said:

“The experience of being within inches of this inspiring masterpiece is incredible and not to be missed. This truly is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and something that all lovers of art, architecture, history and culture should experience.” 

Listings information

Ceiling tours of the Painted Hall take place daily, 10am – 5pm (last admission 4pm)
Tickets: Adults £10 / Children (aged 6 – 17) £5
Full disabled access

The first ceiling tour took place on 1 April 2017. The last tour will be on 30 September 2018.

About the Old Royal Naval College
The Old Royal Naval College  in Greenwich was established as the Royal Hospital for Seamen by King William III and Queen Mary II in 1694. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it is one of the most important ensembles of baroque architecture in Europe. From 1705, the Royal Hospital provided modest, wood-lined cabins as accommodation for retired sailors, housing as many as 2,700 residents at its peak in 1814. The last naval pensioners left in 1869, when the site became home to the Royal Naval College, an officers’ training academy, until 1997. When the Navy left, an independent charity was established to conserve the site for present and future generations, and create enjoyment, learning and rich cultural experiences for everyone.

Today this historic landmark is open to the public and is the home of three unique and free to visit attractions; the Painted Hall, the Chapel, and the Visitor Centre. The Painted Hall is the greatest grand-scale decorative painting in England and has been described as ‘the Sistine Chapel of the UK’. The abundant and complex scheme covers some 40,000 square feet and was designed and executed by Sir James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726. The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul is a neo-classical masterpiece by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and William Newton. Featuring a Samuel Green organ and an altarpiece painted by Benjamin West, it is one of the country’s finest eighteenth century interiors in existence.

The Old Royal Naval College is grateful to the following organisations for their support of the transformation project: the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Sackler Trust, The Garfield Weston Foundation, the Fidelity UK Foundation, the Foyle Foundation, Sir Siegmund Warburg’s Voluntary Settlement, the Pilgrim Trust, the Headley Trust, the 29th May 1961 Charitable Trust and many anonymous donations.
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