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The Royal Hospital for Seamen, Greenwich: 'A Refuge for All'

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Funding and building


Problems with funding

A perspective view of the Royal Hospital at Greenwich, 1746.
View full size imageA perspective view of the Royal Hospital at Greenwich, 1746. © NMM

Fifty-five years elapsed from the ceremony of June 1696 to the completion in 1751 of the Hospital's last great court, Queen Mary's. Building was expensive and funding unreliable. For nearly 40 years the project ran up massive debts from unpaid bills.

In 1695 the leading subscriber, King William, promised £2000 a year 'as a further instance of Our Princely Zeal for advancing the Design'. This money rarely arrived on time, if at all. At the end of the first season Hospital treasurer John Evelyn had only received £800 to pay for £5000 of work.

Evelyn's contribution

John Evelyn (1620-1706).
View full size imageJohn Evelyn (1620-1706). © NMM
In 1703 Evelyn retired, aged 83. He had been a close royal adviser on building at Greenwich and on sailors' welfare for 40 years. In the last ten years this scholarly old man kept the project afloat and moving forward.

Evelyn never took the salary allowed and contributed £2000 to the work, half of it outright just before his death in 1706. It was then found the Hospital still owed him money! The buildings are as much his monument as Queen Mary's.

Other sources of funding

These were unusual and irregular:

Building the Hospital

Dr Johnson thought the four courts of the Hospital 'too much detached to make one great whole', but his view has been a minority one. In 1923 a Wren admirer, the architect Professor Sir Charles Reilly, wrote:

Quotation marks left
The relation between the blocks of Greenwich Palace, including the placing of the domes, is a great achievement in abstract composition. There is an austerity about Greenwich, with its long, straight, free-standing colonnades, its twin domes, simpler and more graceful in outline than his great one [St Paul's], not to be found in his earlier work. As seen from the river, [it] is one of the most sublime sights English architecture affords... a world of clear expressive
Quotation marks right
shapes, where no careless or muddled efforts exist...

That final compliment is all the more striking given the number of people involved and the stop-go progress of the work. Building took place in four well-defined periods:

1696-1712

King Charles Court, Royal Naval College.
View full size imageKing Charles Court, now home to Trinity College of Music. © NMM
The whole site was laid out round the 'Grand Square' at the river end, with Mary's sacred 'visto' continuing south toward the Queen's House.

Early sketch for the ceiling of the Painted Hall.
View full size imageEarly sketch for the ceiling of the Painted Hall. © NMM
Wren built the 'base' wing of the King Charles Court and King William's Court with the Painted Hall, but excluding the roof of the colonnades and work inside the West Dormitory.  The shells of the two ranges of Queen Anne's Court went up in brick, with the 'greater' one that overlooks Grand Square remaining unfaced.

Thornhill decorated the Painted Hall ceiling between 1708 and 1712.

 

 

1712-21

Vanburgh

King William Court, Royal Naval College.
View full size imageKing William's Court, Royal Naval College. © NMM
succeeded Wren as surveryor. He completed King William's Court. The north 'pavilion' of Wren's King Charles base wing was replaced in stone and the linked north pavilions of Queen Anne's Court put up. All three copied the northern end of Webb's 1660s King Charles wing.

1725-32

Queen Anne Court, Royal Naval College.
View full size imageQueen Anne Court, Royal Naval College. © NMM

Queen Anne's Court was finished internally except for the south pavilions, which were built as shells. Its western range also received its stone facade. Most of this work was done under Colen Campbell, who became Surveyor on Vanbrugh's death in 1726, but who himself died in 1729.

The less distinguished Thomas Ripley succeeded Campbell and Thornhill finished the Painted Hall in 1727. In 1731 the public were first granted use of the river walk in front of the buildings, then called 'the Five Foot Walk' because of its width.

1735-51

Greenwich Hospital - the Chapel burning, 2 Jan 1779.
View full size imageGreenwich Hospital - the Chapel burning, 2 Jan 1779. © NMM

In 1735 the Hospital gained the Derwentwater estates. Ripley then completed the south pavilions of Queen Anne and totally built the Queen Mary Court, including the Chapel.

The stone eastern range is the dullest design on the site, but elsewhere he closely copied Wren's King William scheme and produced an acceptable chapel. This burnt out, with damage to its dome and five adjacent wards, in a catastrophic fire of January 1779.

Further building work

James 'Athenian' Stuart, Surveyor from 1758, rebuilt the south pavilion of Wren's King Charles base range in 1769. That was the same year that his new Hospital Infirmary opened on new ground west of the King William Court.

The Chapel Royal, Greenwich.
View full size imageThe Chapel Royal, Greenwich. © NMM
This was the first expansion outide the Hospital's original constricted site. It was only in the 1830s that the waterfront tenements between Infirmary and river were cleared and the area taken into the Hospital grounds.

Finally, from 1782 to his death in 1788, Stuart directed restoration of the Chapel as his masterpiece of the Greek revival style. However, it was his poorly credited assistant William Newton who did most of the work. A crowning glory, it reopened in 1789, 100 years after the coronation of the Hospital's royal founders, William and Mary.




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