For much of its history England imported its famous muralists: Rubens from Holland, Dorigny from France, Verrio from Italy. English muralist Sir James Thornhill (25 July 1675 or 1676 – 4 May 1734) is an exception. Thornhill was England’s most celebrated decorative painter in his time, best known for historical painting in the baroque style. Famous commissions include the Painted Hall at Blenheim Palace and works in St Paul’s Cathedral.

His most ambitious project by far was the vast Painted Hall of the Old Royal Navy College at Greenwich.The work took 19 years to complete and it stands today as perhaps the best example of English mural painting of its time.

At the beginning of 2013, the Painted Hall underwent its first restoration in 50 years. Scaffolding went up at the hall’s west end and restorers went to work cleaning grime, dust and food (flung in the course of naval student food fights) from the murals. Generously, the conservation team offered public tours to show the work. Michael Alford took the rare opportunity to climb the scaffolding and see Thornhill’s work up close.

A shot of the main part of the Painted Hall. At the far end a temporary screen hides the area under restoration. The screen shows an image of what it hides: Thornhill's allegorical treatment of the hall's west wall.

A shot of the main part of the Painted Hall. At the far end a temporary screen hides the area under restoration. The screen shows an image of what it hides: Thornhill’s allegorical treatment of the hall’s west wall.

 

Michael suits up to mount the scaffolding. Even in fine art, there is no escaping health and safety.

Michael suits up to mount the scaffolding. Even in fine art, there is no escaping health and safety.

 

Looking up: Taken from floor level, this shot gives some sense of the scale of the scaffolding—and the scale of the job faced by the restorers. Every centimeter of the walls and ceiling are covered in decorative paintwork.

Looking up: Taken from floor level, this shot gives some sense of the scale of the scaffolding—and the scale of the job faced by the restorers. Every centimeter of the walls and ceiling are covered in decorative paintwork.

Suited and hard-hatted, we follow our guide up the stairs to the first level of the scaffolding.

Suited and hard-hatted, we follow our guide up the stairs to the first level of the scaffolding.

Our guide explains restoration procedures while we examine the murals—and the scaffolding.

Our guide explains restoration procedures while we examine what we can see of the murals. The scaffolding and platforms limit our views, but what we can see is revealing.

Hermes, messenger of the gods, framed by scaffold poles. Is he suggesting we go down?

Hermes, messenger of the gods, framed by scaffold poles. Is he suggesting we go down?

A pretty allegorical figure makes eye contact with us. Note the fine finish to the work, which is painted in oil onto dry plaster. Another muralist might have chosen to use a looser approach to painting destined to be seen from such a distance. Thornhill and his men painted every detail as if it were to be seen from only a few feet away.

A pretty allegorical figure makes eye contact with us. Note the fine finish to the work, which is painted in oil onto dry plaster. Another muralist might have chosen to use a looser approach to painting destined to be seen from such a distance. Thornhill and his men painted every detail as if it were to be seen from only a few feet away.

Another flight of steps takes up to the very top level. The ceiling is within touching distance as it would have been for Thornhill and his assistants. We don't touch, of course.

Another flight of steps takes up to the very top level. The ceiling is within touching distance as it would have been for Thornhill and his assistants. We don’t touch, of course.

A number of artists worked for Thornhill. Restorers believe a painter called XXX was responsible for many of the fine floral details.

A number of artists worked for Thornhill. Restorers believe a French painter Antoine Monnoyer was responsible for many of the fine floral details.

Monarchs take pride of place at the center of Thornhill's universe. They appear as a picture within the bigger picture, framed with a roundel held by allegorical figures. Again, the level of detail at this height is striking—note the shine on the queen's pearls and the carving of the painted frame. These details are hardly visible from floor level. It's not hard to see why this project took Thornhill 19 years to complete.

Monarchs take pride of place at the center of Thornhill’s universe. They appear as a picture within the bigger picture, framed with a roundel held by allegorical figures. Again, the level of detail at this height is striking—note the shine on the queen’s pearls and the carving of the painted frame. These details are hardly visible from floor level. It’s not hard to see why this project took Thornhill 19 years to complete.

Our guide explains the restoration work. Note how the scaffold platform blocks the light from the windows below. Today, powerful lights illuminate the work area, but it gives some idea of the challenging conditions Thornhill and his men faced working at such a height.

Our guide explains the restoration work. Note how the scaffold platform blocks the light from the windows below. Today, powerful lights illuminate the work area, but it gives some idea of the challenging conditions Thornhill and his men faced working at such a height.

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