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What Is the Old Royal Navy College?

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  • Written By: Jerry Morrison
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2016
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The Old Royal Navy College is a site of historic and architectural significance, located on the River Thames in the Greenwich district of London, United Kingdom. Its buildings and grounds are part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, Maritime Greenwich. Originally established in 1694 as the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, the complex served as the Royal Navy College from 1873 until 1998. Since that time, the Old Royal Navy College has been under the management and care of the Greenwich Trust, a charitable foundation.

Sir Christopher Wren was the original architect for the Greenwich Hospital and the buildings survive largely as he planned. The Old Royal Navy College hosts one of the most impressive collections of baroque style architecture in Great Britain. Four separate blocks, each with a central courtyard, make up the complex. The King Charles and Queen Anne blocks face the river Thames. To the South are the King William and Queen Mary blocks, which house the site's principal attractions, the Painted Hall and the Chapel.

Construction of the Painted Hall was begun in 1696 and completed in 1704, following the original designs of Wren. Sir James Thornhill was commissioned to decorate the interior in 1708, a task not completed until 1727. Extensive use is made throughout of trompe l'oeil painting, a technique employing realistic imagery to create the illusion of three dimensions.

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The central oval of the hall features a scene depicting the triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny in a mix of ancient and 18th century imagery. As befits its intended use as a dining hall for navy pensioners, seafaring imagery is common and tribute is paid to the sciences of navigation, cartography and astronomy. According to tradition, a model for one of the portraits was John Worley, a retired seaman still being disciplined for profanity and drunkenness at the age of 96.

Destroyed by fire in 1779, the original Chapel was rebuilt by James Stuart in Greek Revival style, reopening in 1789. A 20th century restoration returned the Chapel to immaculate condition. The use of naval imagery continues throughout, intermixed with classical Greek references. A design of octagons and squares adorns the ceiling, and the floor is of black and white marble. Notably, it includes an accurate ship's anchor and anchor cable design.

The Queen Anne block and portions of two others were leased by the University of Greenwich in 1999 to house its Greenwich Campus. Trinity College of Music has made its home in the King Charles block since 2000. The Greenwich Trust opened the remainder of the buildings and grounds of the Old Royal Navy College to visitors in 2002. A visitor center, the Painted Hall and the Chapel are open to the public daily, free of charge; guided tours are available that provide access to areas not generally open to the unescorted. The Discover Greenwich visitor center serves as gateway to the Old Royal Navy College as well as the larger Maritime Greenwich site.

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