Painted Hall Ceiling Tour at the Old Royal Naval College

Over the next two years, Greenwich’s Old Royal Naval College is undergoing an £8.5 million makeover, restoring and conserving the murals of the Painted Hall.

But instead of shutting it off to the public during this time, they’re offering up ceiling tours where you can stand feet away from the mammoth ceiling paintings, painted 1707-26 by Sir James Thornhill.

painted hall ceiling tour

Up we go!

Although you don’t quite get the Trompe L’oeil effect this close to the paintings, you can’t help but be in awe of how James Thornhill actually created these. It took him 19 years afterall!

painted hall ceiling tour

But what you lose in perspective is made up for in the hidden details – previously lost in history – that have been uncovered with this new view…


This is the crest of King William III and Queen Mary II, the monarchs on the throne when this was started. Previously they thought it was carved in stone. On closer inspection, they’re now not sure what it’s made of!

painted hall ceiling tour

Being this close to Mary II the team was finally able to say for certain what was on the end of her royal sceptre; the dove of peace.

painted hall ceiling tour

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painted hall ceiling tour

As with the West end, the ceiling is full of symbolism. These two ladies represent British rivers; the larger woman in the middle is the River Avon, her modesty partially covered with fishing nets. By her side is the Severn, with Lampreys slithering around her.

Restorer or Vandal?

Getting this close you can see how thin the paint is, look at how the architectural details are showing through the pale flag material here;

painted hall ceiling tour

The last time the ceiling underwent major restoration was during the 1950s but it’s been touched up by multiple people since its completion in 1726. Each of these restorer have – literally – left their mark.

painted hall ceiling tour

They simply write their name as a record of their work. Like the subtle addition above. But sometimes they get outlandish; this restorer scribbled their name across the Queen’s chest!

painted hall ceiling tour

Colourful Characters

With a painting so stuffed full of figures, there are naturally some interesting stories to go with them. The man in the hat below is John Flamsteed, the First Royal Astronomer.

painted hall ceiling tour

The piece of paper he’s holding predicts the next solar eclipse, going so far as to write the exact date it will occur. His prediction was correct and Flamsteed must’ve been relieved; this was painted a year before the eclipse happened, an embarrassingly public mistake had he been wrong!

painted hall ceiling tour

This figure representing Winter was based on a real person; John Worley who was one of the pensioners living here. Aged 90 he’d spent over 70 years at sea and was clearly struggling to adapt to life here, getting in trouble and repeatedly being made ‘a canary’ (having to wear the yellow coats that singled out the naughty retirees).

painted hall ceiling tour

Then there’s just fanciful figures, where Thornhill must’ve just been amusing himself. My favourite was this cute little cherub blowing bubbles to pass the time.

See the Finished Product

Sadly ceiling tours are now over, but the good news is that’s because restorations are complete! You can see the restored Painted Hall here.

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