Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Open House London 2010: Old Royal Naval College Part Two

Disabled sailors at the Hospital had little to occupy the long hours between church services, which they were obliged to attend twice a day. To help alleviate their boredom, a double lane skittles alley was constructed out of a former morgue in the 19th century. As I walked in I saw a life-size painted wooden cut-out of a Seaman dressed in the original 18th century Hospital blue uniform, edged with gilt braiding and buttons. One of his lower limbs had been replaced with a wooden leg. In real life, such a disability did not prevent the Hospital residents from using the bowling alley. I am sure they would have put on a better show than I was capable of on the Sunday. I picked up one of the heavy lignum vitae bowls. Unlike a modern ten pin bowling bowl the lignum vitae bowl did not have holes set in it for fingers to provide a better grip. Hoping for the best, I simply flung it down the lane. Halfway along my bowl slid into the gutter at the side and so ended my career as skittles player.

After the Victorian skittles alley I walked through the underground corridor lined with the coat of arms of famous sailors such as Lord Nelson and made my way to the Painted |Hall. The latter was originally meant to serve as a dining room for the residents of the Seaman’s College. But when the elaborate decorative scheme was finally completely several decades later, it was decided that the resulting Hall was far too grand for the blue uniformed former sailors and it should be opened up to visitors instead, who would pay for the privilege of viewing the stunning paintings covering the walls and ceilings. Viewed from a distance they are truly impressive. The purpose of the paintings was as much about propaganda as art. Thus, in the Lower Hall, William and Mary are shown as liberators of Europe, whilst the defeated Louis XIV of France is depicted clutching a symbolically broken sword beneath them. In the Upper Hall Mary’s sister Queen Anne and her husband Prince George receive the gift of a trident from King Neptune, signifying their dominance of the seas. Elsewhere, the House of Hanover tries to get in on the act, with King George I smugly seated amongst his large family.  I find the Baroque era’s patrons’ predilection for having themselves painted amongst semi-naked figures from Classical Greece, whilst they adhere to the sartorial strictures of their own time more absurd than awe inspiring. Likewise, I quickly grew tired of gazing up at the ceiling. Nevertheless, I can only admire the sheer personal effort of the artist, Sir James Thornhill, who spent close to 20 years striving to produce his masterpiece.   

Thanks to time constraints, I had to choose between either the Admiral’s House or the Dreadnought Library. I chose the latter hoping I would just be able to make it across the way to the former. In the event the latter overshot by a good ten minutes. The Dreadnought Library was built as an Infirmary by the naval authorities in the 1760s. Surgical and medical patients were kept in separate wings thereby reducing the possibility of cross infection. When the Royal Naval Hospital decided to close its Infirmary in 1869, the Merchant Navy took the opportunity to request that the building be leased to them. Up until then merchant mariners were treated in old ships anchored in the Thames, the last one of which was called Dreadnought, hence the name of the Hospital. The Royal Navy agreed to grant a lease subject to an appropriate physical demarcation be maintained between the two hospitals in the form of iron fencing, lest visitors assume it was all one establishment.  Now the Dreadnought building is used by the University of Greenwich as a library. Nevertheless its nautical past is still very evident even in the modern areas. Thus certain windows have been designed to resemble portholes and the carpets are colour coded either in red to indicate they are portside or else green for starboard. Although many of the internal walls of the former wards have been pulled down to open up the space, it is clear from the doorframes along the corridors where many of the wards would have been.  Only one original iron fire door remains. Nowadays such doors are far too heavy to be practical in general use.

Wards used to attract endowments and the colourful plaques from donors can still be seen. The Silver Thimble Ward was funded by the donation of silver jewellery and other items during World War One. By contrast the Stock Exchange Dramatic and Operatic Society only endowed a single bed which was maintained by their “Help Yourself Society.”

When the tour of the Dreadnought Library was over I dashed over to the Admiral’s House. Alas, I was too late for the tour. The silver lining in my cloud of disappointment was it meant I could visit the Chapel. Without doubt, the late 18th century chapel is one of the prettiest I have ever seen. After a fire gutted the interior in 1789 it was redesigned by the English architect James Stuart. After the pomp and bombast of the Baroque Painted Hall, the Chapel delights with its lighter, and in my mind, more elegant Neo-Classical influences. 

Before I left the site I made my way across to a collection of old horse driven carriages. I wondered if they were props for the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film being shot there or whether they belonged to the former Seamen's Hospital. When I looked at the images on my pc later I realised I had captured my own reflection in the carriage window. By this time I had finished photographing the vehicles I was exhausted and dearly wished I had my own carriage and driver awaiting me at the exit to convey me home.

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