Greenwich Hospital has a large and historic art collection of over 700 artefacts.
The origins of the collection are from the “The National Collection of Naval Art” which was established in 1824 at the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich in the Painted Hall.
The ’Naval Gallery’, as it became known, was Britain’s first ‘national historical’ art museum: which aimed to promote Naval patriotism, and maintain the public charitable profile of the Hospital, by a display of art showing great events and figures of Britain’s maritime past.
The Gallery was based entirely on gifts. The Hospital already had some paintings and George IV launched it by presenting over 30 naval portraits from the Royal Collection.
In 1829 he added Turner’s ‘Battle of Trafalgar’ with its pendant, Philippe de Loutherbourg’s ‘Battle of 1 June 1794’.
Others followed his example and eventually the Painted Hall held nearly 300 works of art and continued to have Royal patronage with the presentation of Nelson’s uniform which was purchased for the Hospital by Prince Albert.
The Gallery was very popular in the 19th century and was closed only following the establishment of the National Maritime Museum in 1930 to which the Hospital transferred most of its contents on permanent loan in 1936.
Today, the majority of the Hospital’s collection is housed in four locations: the Royal Museums Greenwich, the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, Royal Brighton Pavilion and the new Heritage Centre at the Royal Hospital School, Suffolk.
Royal Museums Greenwich – National Maritime Museum
The buildings of the NMM were originally built by the Hospital to house the Royal Hospital School. In 1933 the School moved to Suffolk and the NMM moved in to the Greenwich buildings in 1936.
Many of the most famous paintings in the National Maritime Museum are from the Greenwich Hospital collection including Turner’s Battle of Trafalgar, Lemuel Francis Abbott’s Portrait of Nelson and numerous painting of famous Admirals by, Joshua Reynolds, Peter Lely and Geoffrey Kneller.
There are also a number of other artefacts including relics from Sir John Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition of 1845 and the uniforms Lord Nelson wore at the Battles of the Nile (1798) and Trafalgar (1805).
The Museum regularly lends items from the Greenwich Collection for special national and international exhibitions and recent loans have included Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg’s Defeat of the Spanish Armada and The Battle of the First of June to the Musee de Strasbourge in November 2012 and both Nelson’s Nile and Trafalgar Uniforms to the Musée de l’Armée in Paris in 2012.
The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich
The buildings of the Old Royal Naval College were the home to the 20000 Greenwich Hospital pensioners of the Royal Hospital for Seamen between 1705 -1869 and later housed the Royal Naval College.
Today, the ORNC is home to the University of Greenwich and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance as well as number of the Hospital’s paintings, furniture, statues, silverware and ship models.
The majority of items on display are in the Painted Hall, Nelson Room, the Chapel and Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre. Both the NMM and ORNC are an excellent day out and are open daily and remain free to visitors.
Royal Brighton Pavilion
The ornate pleasure palace of the Prince Regent and later George IV houses the Hospital’s famous Fish Furniture in its Banqueting Hall.
The furniture was commissioned by John Fish (1745-1813) and is a unique example of regency giltwood furniture with ornate dolphin-carved arms.
The furniture was presented to the Hospital by John Fish’s widow in 1815 and is now on loan to the Royal Pavilion, Brighton.
The Royal Hospital School Heritage Centre
The Heritage Centre was opened by HRH Prince Andrew the Duke of York on 29 June 2013 and formed a key part of the Royal Hospital School’s 300th anniversary.
This new facility offer a wonderful interactive learning environment celebrating the School’s august past. A number of the Hospital’s artefacts are now on display together with loans from the NMM which include watches and a brooch reportedly belonging to Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton as well as letters from Admirals Nelson, Hardy, Cornwallis and St Vincent.
The Heritage Centre is open to the public on Wednesdays between 9.30am-4.30pm during term time and by appointment other times. Please contact Lucy Pembroke on 01473 326110 or look at www.rhscommunity.co.uk for more details.
The most important items in the Hospital collection can be viewed on the National Maritime Museum’s website: www.nmm.ac.uk
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805
J. M. W. Turner, ‘The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805’: painted in 1822–24 for George IV, who presented it to the Hospital in 1829. NMM BHC0525
© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London