Majesties, Myth, and Naval Might Galore in Britain’s Painted Hall

August 6, 2020 Updated: August 10, 2020

GREENWICH, London—Just as seamen looked to the heavens to navigate their sea voyages, visitors to the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College can look up at the painted ceiling and walls to navigate Britain’s early 18th-century history. 

Decorative artist James Thornhill was commissioned to paint the grand dining hall for the Royal Hospital for Seamen, now known as the Old Royal Naval College. He painted a scheme that showed Britain’s growing prosperity and naval might.

Painted Hall
The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, London, where hundreds of figures feature in Sir James Thornhill’s paintings celebrating Britain’s monarchs and its naval and merchant might. (Old Royal Naval College)

Thornhill “was the only British painter of his day to understand and successfully to emulate the European formulas for wall and ceiling painting and was the only native English painter who could challenge on their own ground the many foreign decorative painters then at work in England,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of Art. 

Thornhill’s 40,000 square feet of paintings in the Painted Hall, and his paintings in the dome of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral—all within two iconic buildings by preeminent architect Sir Christopher Wren—are considered Thornhill’s masterpieces. 

The Importance of History Painting

In 18th-century Britain, history paintings (like those in the Painted Hall) were considered the highest genre of painting. 

“As to paint a History, a Man ought to have the main qualities of a good Historian, and something more; he must yet go higher, and have the Talents requisite to be a good poet; the rules for the Conduct of a Picture being much the same with those to be observed in writing a poem,” notes art historian William Vaughan in his book “British Painting: The Golden Age.” Vaughan quotes from Jonathan Richardson’s 1715 “Essay on the Theory of Painting.” 

The poetry Richardson refers to are the epic poems like those Homer and Virgil told.

The elements of epic poetry that relate to history painting can be found in “A Handbook to Literature” by William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman. An epic is “a long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in adventures forming an organic whole through their relation to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race.”

Each epic painting in the Painted Hall is a proclamation of Britain’s Protestant rule, with the central heroic figure or figures being the monarchy, and every detail reinforces the importance of these great reigns.

The Need for British History Painting

In the early 18th century, Britain didn’t have a strong tradition of history painting to follow because, Vaughan says, there was no training or patronage to sustain a school. Protestant Britain didn’t have a rich tradition of royal court painters, nor did it have patronage from the church as Catholic countries did. British painting began to change in the early 18th century when the Protestant monarchy needed to convey its strength.  

The late 17th and early 18th centuries were times of immense change for England. In 1688, William of Orange (the Dutch prince) took the throne as William III (along with his wife, Princess Mary) from his Catholic father-in-law, King James II. William and Mary jointly ruled Britain. And from their reign onward, as Parliament stipulated in the 1689 Bill of Rights, Roman Catholics were forbidden to ascend the throne because “it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this protestant kingdom to be governed by a papist prince.”

William’s priority overseas was to contain the expansion of Britain’s powerful enemy: France. The two countries differed in their beliefs. France was an absolute Catholic monarchy and Britain a Protestant constitutional monarchy. England and Holland fought together in the Nine Years’ War against France from 1689–1697. The painting of the Painted Hall began just after this tumultuous period.

Over the 19 years that Thornhill painted the hall, between 1707 and 1726, Britain experienced three reigns: those of King William III (1689–1702) and Queen Mary II (1689–1694), Queen Anne (1702–1714), and King George (1714–1727.) 

‘The Triumph of Peace and Liberty Over Tyranny’ 

William and Mary are celebrated as the founders of the Royal Hospital for Seamen, as depicted in the lower hall paintings. Set in an ellipse, the lower hall’s central painting and everything in it reinforces the glory of the monarchy as related to its title: “The Triumph of Peace and Liberty Over Tyranny.”

The Painted Hall
The central painting in the lower Painted Hall, titled “The Triumph of Peace and Liberty Over Tyranny,” features King William III (1650–1702) and Queen Mary II (1662–1694), the founders of the Royal Hospital for Seamen. On either side of the central painting are scenes of Britain’s naval might. (Old Royal Naval College)

The king and queen take center stage in the ellipse. Queen Mary confidently holds a staff and looks directly out of the painting. Peace, dressed in white with two doves by her side, tentatively approaches William, who takes the olive branch from her hand. Both Peace and William use their right hands, echoing the tradition of the handshake.

The Painted Hall
Queen Mary II and King William III surrounded by allegories indicative of a successful reign, in a detail from the painting “The Triumph of Peace and Liberty Over Tyranny,” at the Painted Hall in Greenwich, London. (Old Royal Naval College)

Under William’s right leg  Louis XIV, king of France, cowers as he holds a broken sword and appears to be crushed. France was the most powerful country in continental Europe at the time, an enemy that Britain feared. 

William holds the red cap of Liberty (the Phrygian cap) in his left hand. Europe, who kneels on William’s left side, reaches out toward the cap, which could suggest that William believes he is freeing Europe from France’s tyranny. And perhaps the fact that William takes the olive branch from Peace first indicates that peace must be accepted before freedom can be declared.

Mythological figures surround the monarchs, all to highlight their strength. In the top third of the ellipse, the Greek sun god Apollo stands in his chariot in the heavens, bringing light to the world and to the painting as he chases off a cherub holding a water jug that represents the morning dew.

The Painted Hall
The Greek god Apollo stands in his chariot as he chases off a cherub, which represents the morning dew, to bring light to the world, in the painting “The Triumph of Peace and Liberty Over Tyranny.” (Old Royal Naval College)

In Greek mythology, Apollo enjoyed founding towns and cities and establishing civil constitutions. Additionally, Apollo protects the kingdom by warding off evil and helping those in need. All these are important qualities for any righteous rule—to extend the empire and to uphold goodness.

Below Apollo and just above the royals are the four cardinal virtues: Justice holds a sword, Prudence holds a mirror, Temperance holds the golden jug, and Fortitude holds a stone column. 

The Painted Hall
A detail of the painting “The Triumph of Peace and Liberty Over Tyranny” in which the Spirit of Architecture, dressed in gold, points to a drawing of the Painted Hall. At the bottom, the Greek goddess Pallas Athena, decked in armor, looks down in readiness to defend the kingdom from vices. (Old Royal Naval College)

At the bottom of the painting, the Greek mythological warriors Hercules (with his club) and Pallas Athena (decked in her helmet, shield, and staff), together use their strength and wisdom to protect the virtue of the kingdom by expelling vices.

British Naval Might: 18th-Century Past and Present

On either side of the central ceiling painting, “The Triumph of Peace and Liberty Over Tyranny,” are two scenes showing Britain’s naval strength. Naval power was of the utmost importance to Britain’s expanding empire.

Painted Hall
The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, London, where hundreds of figures feature in Sir James Thornhill’s paintings celebrating Britain’s monarchs and its naval and merchant might. (Old Royal Naval College)

The lower hall’s east painting shows a captured Spanish galleon with the spoils of war, symbolic of Britain’s capture of Gibraltar in 1704 in the War of the Spanish Succession. In the painting, the moon goddess Diana, who oversees the tides, hands down the necessary tidal knowledge to the royal seamen. Thornhill also painted allegories of Britain’s important trade rivers.

The age’s great astronomers and scientists feature in the painting, such as Isaac Newton with his “Principia,” principles of natural philosophy. And the first royal astronomer, John Flamsteed (1646–1719), the founder of the Greenwich Observatory, holds an astronomy chart predicting a future solar eclipse (painted before the predicted date). Fortunately, Flamsteed’s prediction was accurate. 

The other lower-hall painting displays Britain’s emerging naval strength. The HMS Blenheim, a British Man-of-War, is seen with the winged figure Victory. Galileo features here, for his astronomical discoveries and work in improving the telescope. 

The City of London is represented by a handsome woman with a sword and shield. London is supported by a man, who symbolizes the River Thames, and a woman, the River Isis, the upper part of the Thames. Below them, the River Tyne pours coal into a golden bowl: The Royal Hospital was reliant on coal tax, and London was reliant on coal brought by sea from the Tyne.

A Show of Strength

On the ceiling of the proscenium arch that connects the lower hall and upper hall are the allegorical signs of the zodiac. The figures represent the constellations familiar to the seamen as they navigated by the stars on their voyages. 

The Painted Hall
The proscenium arch connects the lower and upper Painted Hall. On the arch’s ceiling are the allegorical signs of the zodiac representing the constellations the seamen navigated by. (Old Royal Naval College)

It’s in the upper hall that the three generations of Protestant monarchs come together, almost in a show of strength, as if to say that George, then king, appreciated all that came before him. 

Throughout the Painted Hall but particularly in the upper hall, Thornhill impressively used gray-tone paintings called grisaille to imitate stone sculptures, and also painted the most spectacular “trompe l’oeil” (“trick the eye”), where astounding classical architecture appears as if solid.

The Painted Hall
Astounding architecture can be seen inside the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, London, the majority of it being actual paintings. Decorative painter James Thornhill used a technique called “trompe l’oeil” (“trick the eye”) to give the illusion of architectural features such as these columns. (Old Royal Naval College)

On the west wall, Thornhill painted splendorous classical architecture that stretches up to the heavenly realms. An inscription in Latin from Virgil’s “Eclogues” appears on the top stone announcing: “A new generation has descended from the heavens,” introducing the new Hanoverian dynasty led by George I. George ascended to the throne after Queen Anne died heirless, despite 50 Catholics who were in line to the throne before him. 

The Painted Hall
The upper hall of the Painted Hall in Greenwich, London, depicts King George surrounded by his family to show the strength of his reign and the solidity of the Protestant line. (Old Royal Naval College)

In the painting, in a deliberate display of strength, George is surrounded by his family, the future successors to the throne, showing the solidity of the Protestant line. George’s mother, Sophie of Hanover, who died just two months prior to Queen Anne’s death, is honored in the painting with a mural crown (a crown representing the city or its boundaries) indicating that she’s the protector of the realm.

Everything in this painting indicates Britain’s future wealth under George’s reign. A figure leans on a cornucopia overflowing with gold; the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Wren and the dome painted by Thornhill, features prominently in the background. A figure to the right holds a trident, symbol of the sea, and points to a scroll naming all the naval victories from the Spanish Armada in 1558 to the defeat of the Spanish fleet in 1718.

And to the right, Thornhill puts himself in the painting, gesturing as if to introduce the whole scene. Before he’d even finished the commission, he gained knighthood, becoming Sir James Thornhill, the first artist to receive this honor.

To find out more about the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Navy College, take the virtual tour at VirtualTour.ORNC.org