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The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich was built on the same site as Greenwich Palace – the former home of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
Christopher Wren’s original plans were rejected by Mary II as they hid the river view of Inigo Jones’ celebrated Queen’s House (now part of the National Maritime Museum). Wren solved the problem by removing the entire centre structure of the building, and giving it two distinct wings.
The resulting building has four ranges: the King Charles and King William buildings, built in 1694 and 1704 respectively, and the Queen Anne and Queen Mary buildings, built in 1728 and 1742.
The College then became a home for sick and aged seaman, who were largely unimpressed with the classical design. Captain Baillie’s complaint was typical, in that
columns, colonnades and friezes ill accord with bully beef and water. London’s famous literary wit Samuel Johnson said the structures were
too much detached to make one great whole.
Modern scholars are more liberal with their praise however, and rank it second only to St. Paul’s as Wren’s greatest piece of work.
One of the most celebrated parts of the Old Royal Naval College is the ceiling of the Great Hall, which James Thornhill decorated with a munificent scene of William III. The English psyche has largely tried to forget how this Dutch prince successfully raised an army to oust James II from the throne, and – apart from a gifted statue outside Kensington Palace – this singular scene is our greatest reminder of the event.
William III paid the painter the rather piddly sum of £1 per square yard for the walls, and £3 for the ceiling. But he took his praise in other ways – you can see him standing at the bottom right of the picture looking out towards the crowd.
The room ended up rather too spectacular for its original intention – as a banquet hall for sailors – and they quickly got shipped off to lesser premises.
Another room open to the public is the Nelson Room nearby, containing a statue of the great man himself. (The statue is actually a replica of the one atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.) This was where he had his laying in State after his death in 1805.
The Royal Naval College was still housing up to 3,000 patients in the 1820s, but by 1873 the numbers had dropped so sharply that the Government decided to utilise the space for other purposes. The injured seaman were shipped off to Plymouth and the College became to an actual school to train our naval sailors.
This arrangement remained for a further 100 years until the buildings were taken over by the Greenwich and Trinity College of Music.
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