The original purpose of the Royal Hospital for Seamen, as it was then called, was to house naval pensioners, retired seamen who had served their careers in the Royal Navy. The Painted Hall was to serve as the banqueting hall for these old sea dogs, the arch towering over the pensioners as they ate. It was used primarily on special occasions, such as the accession and birthdays of monarchs.
Nelson’s lying in state
Nelson’s finest, and final hours at the Battle of Trafalgar saw Britain’s greatest naval victory and the loss of its greatest naval hero. His subsequent lying in state in the Painted Hall is also one of the notable events in the history of the arch. Following the battle, Nelson was brought back to London by sea – his body preserved in a cask of brandy – and brought to the Royal Hospital. This marked the beginning of a lavish lying in state beneath the proscenium arch between 5 and 7 January 1806.
Whilst six attendants and a guard of soldiers solemnly guarded Nelson’s remains, a throng of visitors passed by to pay their respects. Thousands would attend; contemporary news accounts describe how 'the road to town from Greenwich … was almost choked with the immense concourse of carriages, horses and pedestrians'.
National Museum of Naval Art
Upon the Painted Hall’s completion, it was decided to be far too grand for everyday use by the pensioners. It quickly became one of London’s first tourist attractions. Between 1824 and 1936, the Painted Hall was hung with over 300 naval-themed paintings to become the National Gallery of Naval Art, or simply the Naval Gallery. The proscenium arch was hung with portraits of British monarchs William and Mary, and surrounded by statues and busts of famous admirals.
Royal Naval College
In 1873 the Royal Hospital became the Royal Naval College, for the education of naval officers. Once again the proscenium arch became part of 'the grandest dining hall in Europe', providing an elaborate backdrop to the mealtimes of diners.
It would also retain a ceremonial purpose, as it had done for Nelson during the time of the Naval Hospital - Queen Elizabeth II would sit beneath the arch at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1955.
Captain Jack Sparrow and Conservation
Since the Old Royal Naval College’s transformation from naval school into heritage attraction, the arch has seen continued use. Memorably, the arch served as a backdrop in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, as Captain Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp) is dragged before King George I (Richard Griffiths).
We hope that crowdfunding to save this arch will help to conserve this monument for years to come!