The navy, the bank and the painter
I have recently been watching the delectable Dan Snow talking about the history and growth of the British Navy in the programme Empire of the Seas.
One snippet in programme two reminded me of the glorious Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. (The Romantic Novelists’ Association held their 2010 Conference at Greenwich, which is when I went and gawped and marvelled and got a dreadful crick in my neck - but oh, it was worth it).
The real kickstart to the growth of the navy was the formation of the Bank of England in 1694. Subscribers were promised a whacking 8% in interest if they put money into a new venture designed to halt the appalling loss of British ships - and lives and valuable cargo! Within a very short time, a million pounds had been raised. The Bank promptly loaned this to the government to build a fleet of warships and the National Debt was born.
Now, the Painted Hall is in King William Court at Greenwich. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, it was originally intended as an eating space for the naval veterans who lived here at the Royal Hospital for Seamen. In 1708 James Thornhill - then not very well known - was appointed to decorate this dining hall with suitable naval imagery. The vast opulent paintings sprawling across walls and ceiling that resulted took 19 years to complete! I don’t imagine his back was ever the same again.
My favourite part is this section of ceiling: a mighty warship resting on the shoulders of the bank which loaned the money, in its turn resting on allegorical rivers bearing money from subscribers from all across the country. They really knew how to get the most out of a painting in those days.
Incidentally, James Thornhill apparently neglected to set a fee when accepting the commission. He was eventually knighted and paid almost £7000 - that’s £1 per square yard for the walls and £3 per square yard for the ceilings!