The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich A Visit Through the Camera Lens

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I've visited the Old Naval College previously but didn't have my camera with me so have been itching to return and make amends. It seems that the College sits just outside the main visitors zone & is maybe a little overshadowed by the nearby Cut Sark & the Greenwich Observatory. Even on the day I visited, a barmy early August weekday I was surprised at how quiet it was.

As a photographer you soon begin to realise how great design is often based on simple principles and it doesn't take long to realise that the Old Naval College is stunningly beautiful in its simple design. Photographers love symmetry, repeating patterns, bold shapes & framed views & The College could have been designed with photographers & artists in mind. In fact I'd argue that given it's location, space and the views available from the Thames as well as Greenwich Park, The Old Naval College is a more accessible & enjoyable Wren design than the infinitely more famous St Pauls Cathedral.

I began my visit by catching the Docklands Light Railway from the centre of London to Island Gardens where a short walk down a footpath opposite the main entrance to the station brings you to Island Gardens Park. This is a lovely little green space with a cafe and the most amazing view across the river to The Old Naval College, The Queen's House & beyond to the Greenwich Observatory, all in perfect symmetry!

I've always been interested in the foot tunnels below the Thames so planned to take the tunnel between Island Gardens Park & Greenwich (Cutty Sark), the feat of victorian engineering and their place in the social history of London fascinates me. Whilst I was pleased I took this alternative route to Greenwich I have to admit to being a little underwhelmed! Slightly cool & damp was a welcome relief on another stiflingly hot day but slightly musty with a hint of wee and the unanticipated disturbance of groups of screaming children listening for their echo from the tile lined walls was a little disappointing. In hindsight I think I had visions of Brunel's Rotherhithe tunnel in mind (I'll blame Google's image search for that!).

The northern end of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel

The Old Naval College is particularly famous for the Painted Hall & Chapel. I had heard that the Painted Hall was undergoing conservation at present but could still be visited and I was keen to see this in person. The Painted Hall contains the countries largest painted ceiling and one of the most spectacular and important baroque interiors in Europe. Conceived & painted by Sir James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726 the interior, including the ceiling includes scenes of & influencing a pivotal moment in English history as it became a dominant european power. It's well worth reading the detail of the individual paintings on the College's website and it's safe to say George I & Thornhill had a lot of fun weaving stories, messages & lessons into the paintings.

As part of a major conservation project the Hall has been filled with an extensive scaffold structure to install a false, suspended floor just below the ceiling, 60ft in the air. It's from here that a team of conservationists are painstakingly cleaning & conserving the painting.

The extensive scaffold structure filling the Painted Hall. The corrugated structure at the top of the photo is the underside of the temporary suspended floor.

Until September 2018 visitors are able to take a Painted Hall Ceiling Tour, accompanied by expert guides climbing a temporary staircase to the suspended floor, just 8 feet below the ceiling to view hitherto unseen details within the painting and watching the conservationists at work. It's an extraordinary experience to be almost within touching distance of a masterpiece overhead, to be able to clearly see individual brush strokes, details hidden from a distant view as well as some of the issues requiring such drastic attention.

Visitors are shown details of the ceiling by expert guides
Expert conservationists completing the ceiling project

The Painted Hall Ceiling Tours really are an opportunity not to be missed, find out more and purchase tickets at the official Old Naval College website here

The ceiling tour really got me thinking about visiting historical sites & experiencing their modern history. We always look back and very rarely look to the future to imagine what visitors in a hundred years time will think and say about our activities, conservation & management. It was fascinating to hear that all the conservation methods must now be reversible in case future technology allows for improvements, this was not always the case as a rather naively painted blue shawl on the ceiling lays testament to.

Visitors (and particularly photographers perhaps) regularly criticise & bemoan disrupting & 'inconvenient' activities that block & prevent access to locations, iconic views and details so inviting visitors to share this suspended platform with conservation activities offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to not only see the painting up close but truly appreciate the expert work being undertaken. I can't help but think this is an example of 'conservation tourism' that many other historical sites could do well to study.

Check out the figure above; during conservation a close inspection revealed previous restoration attempts, not all of which have stood the test of time. It would appear that someone in or around 1797 was so proud of their efforts they memorialised their skills by signing the figure's chest!
During conservation there are still glimpses of the true grandeur of the Painted Hall

Mirroring the Painted Hall within the King William Court, the Queen Mary Court contains the Chapel. A beautifully ornate interior by James Stuart with fabulous natural light and a striking marble floor. Again within the chapel, simple design provides a basis for the most intricate of decoration with the blues within the ceiling being strongly reminiscent of Wedgewood ceramics.

Perfect symmetry throughout the chapel, I'm just a little unsettled by the open windows destroying the complete effect!
Back outside I needed to find something to break the symmetry!
Looking across Trafalgar Road to the Queen's House
And looking back across The Thames towards Island Gardens Park and beyond to Canary Wharf

Check out The Old Royal Naval College's website here. The College is open daily and is free to enter. The Painted Hall Ceiling tour is £10pp and can be booked on the website.

All photographs were taken with a Canon 5dmkiii with Tamron 28-300mm or Canon 16-35mm lens and processed in Adobe Lightroom & Photoshop.

Author Adam Winfield is a visual marketing expert, qualified photographer and teacher. Adam works across the UK, a Licentiate member of the British Institute of Professional Photographers and qualified to Level 3 Award in Education & Training, Adam's customers are assured of the quality of his photography, tuition and the service he provides.

As a qualified teacher, Adam has a passion for teaching everyone to take better photos and runs a range of courses & events including a unique partnership with Lincoln Cathedral, "Britain's favourite Cathedral".

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