Tag Archives: James Thornhill

Praise be (St Paul’s)

2 - The south side of St Paul's from the Shard.JPG

On this day in 1697 was held the first service in the present  St Paul’s Cathedral, at the time still in the process of being built by Sir Christopher Wren, after its immediate predecessor had been burnt down in the Great Fire of 1666 (*).  Building and repair work would continue until 1710, and the cathedral would only finally formally open on Christmas Day, December 25th, 1711..

There have been five  cathedrals on the site of the present St Paul’s.

The first was built  in 604, shortly  after the first Christian mission under St Augustine landed in Kent, by the King of Kent, Ethelburg, for the Bishop of London, Mellitus, and destroyed by fire in 675.

The   second, “The Church of Paulesbyri”, was built between 675-85  by the Bishop, Erkenwald,  and destroyed by the Vikings in 961.

The  third was built in 961, and destroyed by fire in 1087.

The  fourth, “old St Paul’s”, was built in the Norman,  or Romanesque, style in the years after  1087 by the  Bishop, Maurice and his successors; rebuilt and extended in the Gothic style in 1221-1240,  and in the “New Work” of 1269-1332; renovated in the Renaissance  style by Inigo Jones in 1633-1641, and again by Wren, after the Civil War, during which it had been occupied by  Parliamentary troops and horses, in 1660; and burnt down in  the Great Fire of 1666.  There is a model of it  in the Museum of London.  It was clearly an impressive building, measuring some 600’ in length, and over 400’, or, according to some estimates, over 500’, in height, inclusive of the spire (which  was destroyed by lightning in 1444, rebuilt  in 1462, and destroyed by lightning again in 1561).  As John Denham wrote in 1624:  “That sacred pile, so vast, so high|That whether ‘tis a part of earth or sky|Uncertain seems, and may be thought a proud|Aspiring mountain or descending cloud … ”.

The fifth, present cathedral  was built in the Baroque style by Wren between 1675-1710.  It is faced in plain Portland Stone  (66000 tons of it, quarried in Dorset and  brought round the coast and up the Thames to London in barges), wonderfully reflective of the City’s light and mood.  It is crowned  with a glorious and iconic dome, making it unique among all the cathedrals of England.     The stone-work is by the Master Masons  Joshua Marshall and the brothers Edward and Thomas Strong and their team, overseen by Grinling Gibbons; the wood-work by the Master Carpenter John Langland and his team, also overseen by Grinling Gibbons; and the demi-grisaille paint-work inside  the dome by the Painter-Stainer James Thornhill and his team.  Wren’s simple epitaph inside the cathedral reads “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice”, meaning “Reader, should you seek his memorial, look about you”.   On the pediment above  the  south door is a stone bearing  the image of a Phoenix rising from the ashes, together with  the inscription “Resurgam”, meaning “I shall rise again” (a different stone bearing the same inscription had happened to be found among  the smouldering ruins of the old  cathedral – a positive portent if ever there was one).

There are a great many important memorials in the interior of the cathedral.  The one in the south quire aisle to  the metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631) survived the Great Fire, although if you look carefully, you can still see scorch-marks around  its base!  The ones in the crypt to, among others, Nicholas Bacon (d. 1579), father of Francis, and Thomas Heneage (d. 1594), stepfather of Shakespeare’s patron Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, also survived the fire, although again not without a certain amount of charring!

(*) The service was one of thanksgiving for the end of the Nine Years War, also known as the War of the Grand Alliance or the War of the League of Augsburg, between France on the one side, and a coalition of European countries, including Britain, on the other.

Greenwich Palace and the Royal Naval College, Greenwich

Royal Naval College Grennwich

The Royal Naval College with the Queen’s House in the background

Greenwich was first recorded as Grenewic in 964, as Grenawic in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1013, and as Grenviz in the Domesday Book of 1086.  It takes its name from the Old English grene, meaning green, in context grassy or vegetated; and wic, meaning trading settlement or harbour.

Greenwich Palace was built here by Henry V’s brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, in 1426, and rebuilt by Henry VII between circa 1500-06.  The palace is notable as the birthplace of Henry VIII and of his daughters Mary and Elizabeth I.  It was substantially demolished at the end of the seventeenth century to make way for  the Royal Naval College, although some surviving fragments can still be seen in an exhibit in the “Discover Greenwich” Visitor Centre attached to the College.

Plaque marking site of Greenwich Palace

The plaque in the courtyard of the Royal Naval College marking the site of Greenwich Palace

The College was built by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor between 1692-1728.  It had to be built in two widely separated halves to allow the “Queen’s House” to the rear,  built by Inigo Jones, principally between 1629-40, to remain in the view from the river (leading Samuel Johnson to describe it  as “too much detached to make one great whole”).  The east wing, including the Chapel, was damaged by fire in 1779, and rebuilt by James “Athenian” Stuart, while the west wing, including the Painted Hall, was undamaged.

Royal Naval College Grennwich

The Royal Naval College with the Queen’s House in the background

Chiaroscuro, Lower Hall

Chiaroscuro, Lower Hall

The Painted Hall, “the finest dining hall in Europe”, was sumptuously decorated by the English artist James Thornhill, who also did the dome of St Paul’s, between 1708-1727.  It features a range of allegorical and symbolic scenes, with various members of the Royal Family, consorting with gods and goddesses, very much to the fore, as well as the Royal Navy.  Thornhill’s painterly  skill is most evident in his rendering of subjects as if in three dimensions through the use of forced perspective (trompe l’oeil).  And evidently he was only paid £3 per square yard for the ceilings, and £1 per square yard for the walls!

Painted fireplace surround, Lower Hall

Painted fireplace surround, Lower Hall

Painted symbols of Britain's military might, Lower Hall

Painted symbols of Britain’s military might, Lower Hall

The Hall was originally intended as a dining hall for the so-called “Greenwich Pensioners”, who lived at the nearby Royal Hospital for  Seamen, but  was soon deemed to be too good  for them (it appears that they once had a food fight, and got gravy on the paintwork).   Instead, it became something of an up-market tourist attraction, and between 1824-1936 also housed the National Gallery of Naval Art (now housed in the Queen’s House).   It remains open to the public, and is, remarkably, free of charge!

The ceiling of the Upper Hall, featuring Queen Anne (reigned 1702-1714) and her husband George of Denmark

The ceiling of the Upper Hall, featuring Queen Anne and her husband George of Denmark

The Lower Hall

The Lower Hall

The entrance to the Upper Hall

The entrance to the Upper Hall

The west wall of the Upper Hall,  featuring George I and his children and grandchildren

The west wall of the Upper Hall, featuring George I (reigned 1714-1727) and his children and grandchildren

Detail of the entrance to the Upper Hall, showing the royal and zodiacal motifs on the arch

Detail of the entrance to the Upper Hall, showing the royal and zodiacal motifs on the arch