Some Highlights of the Newly Restored Queen’s House, Greenwich. By Jane McChrystal.

 

The newly-restored Queen’s House reopened earlier in October.  The house was commissioned in 1616 by James the First for his wife Anne of Denmark and completed in the reign of Charles the First.

Inspired by his travels in Italy, it was one of Inigo Jones’ earliest works and the first example of a palladian villa to be built in this country.  The restoration was planned to coincide with the celebration of the house’s 400th anniversary.

It now houses 450 of the National Maritime Museum’s collection of paintings, sculptures, and mirrors.

When visitors enter they are directed to the Great Hall by way of the lower part of the Tulip stairs, another architectural first in England.  The stairs are constructed to seem as if they float unsupported as they spiral up towards the lantern in the roof.  The finely modelled wrought-iron bannisters are composed of fleur de lis, rather than the tulips for which the staircase is named, and have been painted in their original cobalt blue.,

I first visited the Great Hall in 2014 to see Yinka Shonibare’s series of fake death paintings in which he reimagines Nelson’s death referencing the work of painters such as Menageot and Manet.  Shonibare’s post-imperial interpretation of the great admiral’s demise seemed especially intriguing set within a location dedicated more usually to the patriotic commemoration of Britain’s maritime history.

So I was pleased to hear that Richard Wright and his team had been commissioned to paint the ceiling of the hall.  Using early techniques employed by fresco painters, they have covered it in a deceptively simple pattern of floral motifs which reflect the Tulip Stairs.  This is the first time that a new painting has been made on the Great Hall’s ceiling since Orazio Gentileschi decorated its nine panels in 1639.

It is beautiful and subtle but I can’t help wishing that some of the boldness shown in mounting the Shonibare exhibition was apparent in this creation.

There is no such restraint in the decoration of the King’s Presence Chamber which is entered from the gallery of the Great Hall.  The ceiling is dark blue decorated with ornate mouldings covered in gold paint, while the artwork on the walls illumines the rest of the room.  The chamber’s focal point is Gentileschi’s depiction of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, Zuleka.  The painting contains a sumptuous rendering of the gold, burgundy and orange fabrics which make up Joseph’s costume and the hangings in Zuleka’s room.

Anyone who visited the Queen’s House before its restoration will be struck by the transformation which has been achieved.  Previously it was well-maintained but felt cold and uncared for.  Now it’s easy to imagine it as the scene of the elaborate masques loved by Charles the First and his court.

Jane McChrystal © 2016.