Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Wednesday 5 April 2017

Up on the ceiling

This is as much as most people are going to see of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich for the next couple of years, unless they pay for a guided tour of the current restoration work.

One phase of the project was completed some time ago - the far end section, glorifying the Hanoverian monarchs George I and II and their Navy's triumphs. This you can contemplate while the guide introduces the tour and the history of the hall.

Now the conservators have moved on to the main part of the Hall's ceiling, and to see anything, you follow the guide up through the scaffolding to a platform right underneath the ceiling, for an explanation of the painstaking work of cleaning and repairing the painting, and the extravagant iconography.
Everything revolves around the central figure of William III, with his wife and co-monarch Mary seated beside him, she popular, lively, pretty and cultured (and credited with the idea of setting up this home for retired seamen in the first place), he dour, withdrawn and suspicious  - but, like Mary, a legitimate Protestant grandchild of Charles I, and even more attractive to Parliament - a history of successful generalship defending the Netherlands against Louis XIV. So while she sits to one side (with, as the guide points out, some daring workman's signature across her bosom, dated 1797), he triumphs over Louis XIV and the Pope, receiving an olive branch of  Peace and delivering the red cap of Liberty to captive Europe.

They are surrounded by images of the virtues defeating vices, approving figures of classical legend like Neptune, Juno and Hercules, the seasons, cherubs and roses and assorted images of naval grandeur and Greenwich's importance to astronomy and navigation.

At a less exalted level, the figure of Winter represents the retired seamen for whom the building was created - and the model chosen was the oldest pensioner of the time (and, it would seem, a somewhat rambunctious one).

Suitably equipped for health and safety, a tour party examines some detail
A confident - and accurate - prediction of the date of the solar eclipse due the year after the ceiling was finished

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