Seven wonders of London: Old Royal Naval College
The Royal Naval College or, to be precise, the Old Royal Naval College (confusingly there isn’t a New Royal Naval College), is a startlingly beautiful building. A baroque masterpiece, it stands with such elegance and self-containment by the Thames that it is apparently a natural part of the Greenwich riverbank it graces. It belongs, like the all the best architecture, to its space. Almost as if this patch of SE10 was not truly complete until the Royal Naval College was built.
Why then are its praises so unsung? For the same reason, perhaps, that other London buildings, like the graceful curve of the scandalously abandoned Eurostar terminal at Waterloo, the restrained medieval beauty of Southwark Cathedral or the art deco genius of the 1930s Eltham Palace extension are also unappreciated: they are south of the river and therefore, for the city’s cultural elite, they do not exist.
Ironic, then, that if the Royal Naval College did not exist then neither would the same cultural elite that so despises London’s lower regions. At least not in the way it does now, for the Royal Naval College buildings were – as the chief British naval training centre between 1869 and 1998, including a fully functioning nuclear reactor between 1962 and 1996 – an institution that guaranteed the survival of the British empire. No Royal Naval College, then no Britain as we know it; rather a country that would pay a a closer resemblance to France and Spain than it does now.
A table for one
However the complex began not as recruitment centre for empire but as a retirement home for sailors at the suggestion of Queen Mary, wife of England and Scotland’s Dutch Protestant King William III (of Orange) in 1694. This brought together some remarkable Londoners: architect Christopher Wren, still bathing in the glory of his achievements in reconstructing London and St Paul’s after the great fire, and Samuel Pepys, member of the Naval Board, whose office was nearby at Deptford. The location had history; from a villa on the hill above, senior Roman officials had controlled the approaches to London and Anglo-Saxon Kentish kings had built their barrows. The park that grew around the hill is Britain’s oldest royal park, first enclosed in 1433; at the foot of the hill facing the Thames had stood Greenwich Palace, birthplace of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
Greenwich had been an important royal centre. Henry had built the finest armour factory in Europe on the site, importing German and Italian craftsmen and running regular tournaments to test the metal of their work. Being Henry, he didn’t just fight at Greenwich but indulged his other pleasures; Greenwich Palace was also known as Placentia – Latin for pleasure – and 500 years ago what is now an attractive, if overused, one-way system was home to a township of bakers, butchers, courtesans and brewers catering to the needs of what was, in effect, a royal holiday camp. Greenwich was also, given its position on the Thames, the ideal location to meet foreign ambassadors before they reached London and to dispatch spies to Catholic continental Europe which was hungrily eyeing up the newly Protestant England.
Wren, realising that the work must last longer than he would, was canny enough to have all the foundations dug, so that whoever followed him was obliged to stick to his plan. Wren built around and extended the existing King’s House, planned and constructed by John Webb between 1664 and 1669, which remains in the shape of Charles Court today. However the defining prospect of the College is not the building but the space that runs through middle offering a clear view from the river through the porticos of the Queen’s House and up the hill to the statue of General Wolfe and then the observatory. This avenue is not a product of Wren’s genius but of Queen Mary’s selfishness; she insisted that the view of the Thames she enjoyed from the Queen’s House – a view that had been created by the demolition of Placentia Palace – should not be blocked by the new building.
As well as working with Nicholas Hawksmoor, Wren was followed by Sir John Vanbrugh and Thomas Ripley. So the finished building we see today is actually a portfolio work built over four key periods between 1696 and 1742. However the greatest glory of the college buildings is not an exterior view, breathtaking though they are, but an interior: James Thornhill’s rightly famous Painted Hall, decorated with such remarkable splendour and skill that the pensioners, who were supposed to use it as a dining room, were not allowed in there.
This is not merely sensational interior design, it is a statement of national intent, a visual poem to the victory of Protestantism and parliamentary control of monarchy made real in the personae of William and Mary. In the great depiction of king and queen in the Painted Hall we are not seeing the divine right of kings as celebrated in the French baroque but the limits of kingly power (although the ceiling, repainted by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart in 1789, is notably different in style, symbolising a state that had emerged from religious and political disorder and was ready to conquer the world). From now on, London would be an ocean-going, mercantile, Protestant and, consequently, imperial power.
Appropriate then, that after perhaps the greatest moment in that expansion, the defeat of a joint French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, Admiral Nelson’s body – stored in a brandy barrel – was brought to the Painted Hall (a plaque marks the position of his coffin), and 30,000 members of the public paid their respects before his body was taken by river to St Paul’s Cathedral for the state funeral.
Half a century after Nelson’s death, the landscaped gardens were enlarged on the western side by Philip Hardwick who also designed the monument (a smaller Cleopatra’s Needle near the present pier) to the French naval officer, Joseph René Bellot, who drowned in 1853 in the attempt to find the lost ships of Sir John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition. Other boats brought Whig and Tory politicians from Westminster in the 1800s for riotous whitebait suppers at the Trafalgar Tavern that went on into the small hours.
Pepys once heard nightingales here and, though they have been long since chased off by the juggernauts of the A20, if you were to walk through the courtyards now you might hear the equally sweet sound of violins floating between buildings now occupied by the Trinity College of Music. Happily, you can still get giant plates of whitebait at the Trafalgar and what better place to sit after a walk around the grounds – perhaps with a pint of Kentish ale to wash down the small, crispy fish – and consider that, on the whole, and with the honourable exception of M Bellot, it’s best not to be Spanish or French. Not if you can possibly help it.
Look out for our fifth wonder next week. To see the nominations so far and suggest your own, visit www.timeout.com/sevenwonders
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