15 August 2011

Greenwich

July 11th (my sister’s birthday!) saw us at our first trip after coming back from Paris.  We went out to the London Eye pier bright and early and caught a commuter clipper out to Greenwich for two tours.
After figuring out how to get where we were going, which took a map and some personal directions, we arrived at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, an interesting departure from our usual fare of museums and libraries.

Established in 2000, the gallery was named for a teenaged boy who was stabbed in a nearby neighborhood; his killers were not prosecuted because they were sons of influential informants of the police. His mother decided that a gallery would be the best way to commemorate his creativity. The idea is to welcome all people, and to showcase not only art but “visual cultures and practices of all kinds”.

The exhibition while we were visiting was an installation of abstract art done by local artists. It attempted to explain the history of a group of Greenwich studios between 1974-94. Our guide, David Waterworth, explained the background of abstract art in the area of Greenwich, including how artist made studio spaces in abandoned buildings and were instrumental in bringing prosperity back to industrial areas. It was interesting to learn that many of the original artists became teachers, bringing in new talent.

Abstract is really not my kind of art, but David really had a lot of enthusiasm for his job. He told us about every piece in the small gallery, with some background on many of the artists.  It was easy to tell that he is a person that really enjoys his job, and he was excited to share it all with us.  There were two paintings that I liked (which surprised me a little bit), and the rest were…well, abstract. J

After we left the gallery, we had time to explore Greenwich a bit and eat lunch, and then we met back up at the Greenwich Discovery Center. Our guide, Ann, was a wealth of information, and brought us all around the main area. I couldn’t possibly relay all the information she gave us, or even everything that I wrote down, but I’ll share some highlights. 

Ann began by telling us that Greenwich was the location where the king (oops, I didn’t write down which) signed the permission for settlers to go to the United States. It is also the site where Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I were all born. There is a lot of architectural history to Greenwich, with small buildings turning into palaces, palaces pulled down, unfinished building, more palaces being built, architects finishing what others started, and buildings being turned into all kinds of things like schools and homes for pensioners.
Greenwich was also both very popular and very unpopular with various royals; Henry VIII built the royal dockyards and Elizabeth I liked it because she could welcome home her explorers right on the River Thames.

All of this information was relayed out in the center of the palace, next to the gates leading to the water.  We then went down underneath one of the buildings to view what is probably an original foundation, a couple of rooms underneath part of the school, although the lights weren’t working so we were taking pictures in near darkness.  There are also a lot of stone heads that were created as decorations for the palace but were never used.

Then we went back out into the sunlight and crossed over to the Painted Hall.  This enormously huge room was intended as a dining room for the Royal Hospital. It was painted by James Thornhill, the first English painter to be knighted, and was the first tourist attraction here. There are mirrors to look at the ceiling without craning your neck, though we all sat down at one of the long tables and that made it easier to look up while Ann talked. 

The PH was turned into a museum and art gallery and naval museum, and was so even when Greenwich became a naval college; the maritime museum was built in the 1930s and the museum was moved there, so that is when it was finally used as a dining hall.  The hall hosts weddings and receptions, graduations, banquets and even filming (including a scene from the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie). The lower hall is dedicated to celebration of the British army, and Lord Nelson lay in state in the upper hall, which is at the far end, up a few steps.  The archway between the two halls represents the northern hemisphere.

There is lots of symbolism in the ceiling paintings: the main section is Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny; all the zodiac symbols are represented (although I couldn’t figure out which one was Scorpio); each of the four seasons is personified—Winter is a portrait of the oldest pensioner who lived there, John Worley.
At 96 years old, he was rumored to be quite the womanizer, and smuggled in drink and whatnot.  There is an interesting little story that Pocahontas might actually be one of the figures on the ceiling as well. 

The upper hall is mainly focused on the family of George I, who apparently disliked England but had to rule it anyway.  There is a huge amount of symbolism in that family portrait, but I didn’t write it all down and it would take a picture to explain it all anyway.  So after learning one last little tidbit (it was called a hospital from the word hospitality), we took a group picture on the steps of the upper hall and then moved on to our next tour stop. 

We entered the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul next, which was originally built in 1751, but was gutted by fire in 1779 and rebuilt by James Stuart.  We all sat in a couple of pews and surveyed all the gold as Ann talked.  The painting on the wall behind the altar was done by Benjamin West, an American who became the favorite artist of George III.  There are fourteen saints painted around the room—the twelve apostles and Mark and Luke.  All naval chapels are dedicated to Peter and Paul, so I guess they don’t need to be lumped together with everyone else.  The paintings are done to look like they are actually statues, a sort of 3D effect.

The most valuable item in the chapel is the organ, which was built during the restoration process and cost £1000, so it’s a good thing that the curve of the ceiling and the foreshortened front wall make for great acoustics.  Underneath the organ is what is called the most beautiful doorway in England.  The panoramic earth website has a great view of the whole chapel.

Outside the chapel, down the stairs to the left, is a monument to sailors who perished on a trip to the South Pole; two bodies were later found and one was identified. Years later, DNA tests found out that the man was not actually who they thought it was…

Our very last stop, down yet another staircase, was Skittle Alley.  This is a bowling alley that was built for the pensioners, with belaying pins made into bowling pins and wooden practice cannon balls.  Originally it was a mortuary, also where amputations were performed, and the dents in the windowsills were thought to be where surgeons sharpened their knives (this was later disproved).  There is also a hallway called the Chalk Walk, where old man pensioners smoked their clay pipes and threw the bits down on the floor where they were ground into chalky dust.  The hallways have been plagued with damp down there and there’s been some work to try to figure out how to stop that.    

We finally made it back outside, into the glaring sun, and that was the end of our official tours for the day.  Olivia and I went over to buy a book really quickly and then we walked up the hill to the Greenwich Maritime Museum. We wanted to take pictures at the Meridian line, but the museum was closing and they weren’t letting anyone else into the courtyard. So we contented ourselves with the line on the path around the building, then took some pictures of the view and went back down the hill.  We took the clipper back to Waterloo and that was the day.

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