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

The foundation of the Hospital
Funding and building
The Pensioners
The decline of the Hospital
The Greenwich Hospital collection
Cradle of the Navy: the Hospital School then and now
The invisible Hospital
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The Greenwich Hospital collection

Museum and art gallery

The Painted Hall of Greenwich Hospital.
View full size imageThe Painted Hall of Greenwich Hospital. © NMM

The Hospital's role as a museum and art gallery originated from the decision to paint the refectory. The dining room was moved elsewhere for the duration of Thornhill’s work. Then, because the room was too small for the number of residents, the move was made permanent. Thereafter, Thornhill's Hall was only used for grand occasions.

The Painted Hall was given up to the many visitors who soon paid to see Thornhill's painting, aided by his printed description of them. This launched Greenwich as a place of cultural tourism.

'A National Gallery of Marine Paintings'

Captain William Locker, 1731-1800.
View full size imageCaptain William Locker, 1731-1800. © NMM
In 1795 the newly arrived Lieutenant-Governor William Locker, Nelson's friend and former captain, suggested:

 'that it should be appropriated to the service of a National Gallery of Marine Paintings, to commemorate the eminent services of the Royal Navy of England'.

Locker was a veteran of the American war. He may have been inspired to open a gallery in the

Painted Hall because the Hospital was receiving bequests of paintings from Naval officers. He also wanted to keep up public interest in the Hospital's work at the start of the French Revolutionary War.

Sources of early paintings

John Worley (1624 - c. 1721).
View full size imageJohn Worley (1624 - c. 1721). © NMM
The paintings that the Hospital already owned came from several sources:

  • Thornhill himself presented his oil study of pensioner John Worley, in the early 18th century.
  • In 1781 James Stuart presented some of Thornhill's sketches for the Hall decoration.
  • In 1774 the Hospital acquired portraits of William and Mary by Kneller, by private gift.
  • Captain Hugh Palliser.
    View full size imageCaptain Hugh Palliser. © NMM
    In 1783 Governor Palliser comissioned Gainsborough to paint a portrait of his friend the 4th Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, for the Hospital. Palliser later bequeathed 
    views of the siege of Quebec, in which both he and his protegé James Cook had distinguished themselves.

William Locker died in 1800 before a Naval Gallery could be created to show these and other pictures. It was his son, Edward Hawke Locker (1777-1849) who finally displayed the collection in the Painted Hall.

The Naval Gallery, 1824-1936

Edward Hawke Locker (1777-1849).
View full size imageEdward Hawke Locker (1777-1849). © NMM
Edward Hawke Locker (1777-1849) is an important figure in the Hospital's history:

  • In 1819 he became Secretary of the Hospital and in 1829 a Commissioner.
  • In 1823 he obtained agreement to carry out his father's plan for the Painted Hall. The tall lower windows were blocked up to give picture-hanging space and Locker began seeking works to fill it.

All the pictures were gifts or bequests.

Flagmen of Lowestoft: Admiral Sir William Penn, 1621-70.
View full size imageFlagmen of Lowestoft: Admiral Sir William Penn. © NMM
The only identified purchase was a portrait of Queen Anne from Greenwich parish church, for which the Admiralty approved payment of £10 in 1875! 

In 1824, George IV backed and launched the scheme with a major gift of 31 portraits from the Royal Collection. These included nearly all Lely's 'Flagmen' portraits of Restoration admirals, and those that Kneller and Dahl had done for William III and Queen Anne. The Gallery opened in 1824, beating the embryo National Gallery by three weeks as the first public national historical collection!

The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805.
View full size imageThe Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805. © NMM
In 1829, the King added de Loutherbourg's great 'Battle of 1 June 1794' and its even greater pendant, Turner's 'Battle of Trafalgar' of 1822-24 - a controversial picture whose nautical failings the Pensioners delighted in pointing out to visitors (who included Turner).

After this, the Collection snowballed. Even before the railway reached Greenwich in 1836, it drew 50,000 visitors a year and eventually included 300 paintings.

Other artefacts

John Rosedale, Mariner and Exhibitor of the Hall of Greenwich Hospital.
View full size imageJohn Rosedale, Mariner and Exhibitor of the Hall of Greenwich Hospital. © NMM
Apart from the oil paintings, the Hall accumulated sculpture, drawings, ship models, many Nelson relics and others. This was quite separate from the huge Royal Naval Museum, which displayed non-Hospital collections in 17 rooms of the Queen Anne Court after the Royal Naval College arrived in 1873.

In 1844, when Locker retired, the Hospital appointed an Honorary Curator with an annual gratuity of £100. His job was to advise on what gifts to accept and to ensure care of its Collection. The first, the marine painter Clarkson Stanfield, also oversaw repairs to the Hall itself. When he retired in 1865 similar artist-curators succeeded him up until at least as late as 1911.

United Services:  a visit to Greenwich by Chelsea Pensioners.
View full size imageUnited Services: a visit to Greenwich by Chelsea Pensioners. © NMM

The Collection remained open in the Hall (with some items in the Naval Museum) until responsibility for it passed to the National Maritime Museum after its foundation in 1934. Some pictures bought for the National Maritime Museum in its formative period also briefly hung there.

In 1936, the Collection crossed the road to this Museum but remains Hospital property. The Painted Hall was then restored to its present state.

Find out more
GalleriesThornhill's painted ceiling
Early sketches for Thornhill's Painted Hall in Greenwich Hospital.
GalleriesThe Greenwich Hospital collection
Examples of famous paintings and artefacts donated to the Greenwich Hospital.
StoriesMaritime Greenwich: A World Heritage Site
A unique historical landscape
GalleriesGreenwich through the ages
Greenwich has been the site of many prestigious buildings including a royal palace, the Royal Observatory and the Naval College
StoriesTraining ships on the River Thames
Preparing boys for a life at sea
National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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