Water Gate at Greenwich

When Queen Mary commissioned Christopher Wren in 1694 to build the Royal Hospital for Seamen, offering sheltered housing to sailors who were invalid or retired, she instructed him to “build the Fabrick with Great Magnificence and Order” and there is no question his buildings at Greenwich fulfil this brief superlatively. On a bright February morning, you may discover yourself the only visitor – as I did last week – and stroll among these august structures as if they existed solely for your pleasure in savouring their ingenious geometry and dramatic spatial effects.

Since the fifteenth century, the Palace of Pleasaunce commanded the bend in the river here, where Henry VIII was born in 1491 and Elizabeth I in 1533. Yet Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House built for Anne of Denmark and the words ‘Carolus Rex’ upon the eastern extremity of the Admiral’s House, originally begun in 1660 as a palace for Charles I, are the only visible evidence today of this former royal residence abandoned at the time of the English Civil War.

It was Wren’s ingenuity to work with the existing buildings, sublimating them within the seamless unity of his own grandiose design by replicating the unfinished fragment of Charles’ palace to deliver magnificent symmetry, and enfolding Inigo Jones’ house within extended colonnades. The observant eye may also discern a dramatic overstatement of scale in architectural details that is characteristic of Nicholas Hawskmoor who was employed here as Wren’s Clerk of Works.

From 1705, the hospital for seamen provided modest, wood-lined cabins as a home-from-home for those who had spent their working lives at sea, reaching as many as two-thousand-seven-hundred residents at its peak in 1814, until superceded in 1869 by the Royal Naval College that left in 1995. Today the University of Greenwich and Trinity School of Music occupy these lofty halls but, in spite of its overly-demonstrative architecture, this has always been a working place inhabited by large numbers of people and the buildings suit their current purpose sympathetically .

The Painted Hall is the  tour-de-force of this complex, guaranteed to deliver a euphoric experience even to the idle visitor. Here the Greenwich Pensioners in their blue uniforms ate their dinners until James Thornhill spent eighteen years painting the walls and ceiling with epic scenes in the classical style celebrating British sea power and it was deemed too grand for anything but special occasions. Yet down below, the home-made skittles alley brings you closer to the domestic lives of the former residents – who once enjoyed fierce after-dinner contests here using practice cannon balls as bowling balls.

Exterior of the Painted Hall

The Chapel

King William Court

King William Court

The Admiral’s House was originally built as a residence for Charles I. Abandoned in the Civil War, Queen Anne commissioned Wren to rehabilitate the unfinished palace as part of his design for the Royal Hospital for Seaman which opened in 1705

Inspired by the Elgin marbles, the elaborate pediment in Coade stone is a tribute to Lord Nelson

Exterior of the Painted Hall

Pump and mounting block in Queen Anne Court

The chapel was completed to Wren’s design in 1751 and redesigned by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart in 1781

Plasterwork by John Papworth

Queen Anne Court

In the Painted Hall

Begun in 1708, Sir James Thornhill’s murals in the Painted Hall took nineteen years to complete

Man with a flagon of beer from Henry VIII’s Greenwich Palace

Man with a flask of gin from Henry VIII’s Greenwich Palace

The Skittles Alley of the eighteen-sixties, where practice cannon balls serve as bowling balls

Entrance to the Old Royal Naval College

The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, is open daily 11:00 – 5:00 Admission Free

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