As a destination for art and culture, London is up there with the best. There are hundreds of museums, galleries and art exhibitions all around the capital, but perhaps less well-known are the many significant and fascinating artworks in Greenwich, from old masters to modern sculptures and installations. Here, Lewisham based Rosalind Whyte, Art Historian, gallery guide and NADFAS-accredited lecturer takes us through her top ten pieces of art that you can see for free
Sir James Thornhill was born in Dorset and worked as an artist in a period when many of the big art commissions went to artists who had come to England from abroad. Possibly in order to secure the prestigious commission to paint the hall of Greenwich Hospital he offered to complete the job before receiving payment, presumably not expecting the job to take him 19 years! Finally completed in 1727, The Painted Hall is a wonderful baroque design that dramatically raised his reputation. He was greatly admired by, amongst others, the artist who became his son-in-law, William Hogarth.
William Hogarth’s Captain Lord George in his Cabin is a classic example of the humour and detail to be found in his work. We see the captain surrounded by members of the crew, but whilst the bursar attempts to discuss the ship’s log, his Captain just wants to listen to the music. On the right sits a pug (modelled on Hogarth’s beloved Trump), sporting a full dress wig and following the music on the score propped up in front of him. Spot the distracted cabin boy about to spill gravy down the neck of the bursar!
Another sea captain, Captain Cook, was the driving force behind the paintings of William Hodges, who joined Cook on his second voyage of discovery and painted scenes from the many and varied places they visited. Currently on display as part of the Queen’s House ‘The Art and Science of Exploration’, is the wonderful A View of the Cape of Good Hope by William Hodges, sent home to London from South Africa and exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1774, a year before Cook’s expedition returned. Imagine the excitement this and other canvases must have produced amongst audiences seeing views of far off lands and peoples for the first time.
George Stubbs’ paintings of a Kangaroo and a Dingo were commissioned by Sir Joseph Banks, who travelled on Cook’s first voyage. Without first-hand knowledge of either animal, the renowned animal-painter Stubbs had to rely on a few pencil sketches taken by another artist and a kangaroo pelt he was provided with. The resulting ‘kangaroo’ is a strange looking creature, and the ‘dingo’ essentially a dog with a bit of fox thrown in for good measure! They’re both wonderful paintings though and are now safely in the National Maritime Museum’s collection, following a public appeal in 2013 to save them for the nation. (picture credit: Acquired with the assistance of Heritage Lottery Fund; Eyal Ofer Family Foundation; The Monument Trust; The Art Fund; The Crosthwaite Bequest; The Sackler Foundation; Sir Harry Djanogly CBE; The Hartnett Conservation Trust; Sheila Richardson and Anthony Nixon; James and Clare Kirkmans; The Leathersellers’ Company; Gapper Charitable Trust; Genevieve Muinzer and others.)
The National Maritime Museum also contains one of the most famous portraits of Nelson, one of the country’s greatest naval heroes. The portrait, by Lemuel Francis Abbot was painted in 1799, based on studies taken in 1797, when Nelson was convalescing in the naval hospital in Greenwich following the loss of his arm in the Battle of Santa Cruz. By 1799 Nelson had scored his biggest victory to date, virtually annihilating the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile. Abbot’s portrait shows Nelson adorned with honours he received, including the diamond chelengk on his hat, presented by the Sultan of Turkey, sadly stolen in 1951.
Another tribute to Nelson can be seen in Greenwich, a treasure hidden away amongst the buildings of the Old Royal Naval College. It is by the American artist Benjamin West, and is based on his own painting of The Immortality of Nelson. Both painting and sculpted relief show Neptune passing the body of Nelson to the figure of Britannia. The sculpture is on the pediment of the King William Court colonnade and still looks remarkably fresh, 200 years later. It is made from Coade Stone, a very hard-wearing material manufactured by Eleanor Coade’s factory in Lambeth and widely used in sculpture of the period.
A more contemporary reference to Nelson can be seen at the back of the National Maritime Museum, near the new Sammy Ofer Wing. It is a ship in a bottle by Yinka Shonibare and is a scaled down replica of HMS Victory. The 37 sails are made from patterned African textiles, a reference to time Shonibare spent in Nigeria during his childhood and to broader themes of colonialism. Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle was originally part of the Fourth Plinth commission, in Trafalgar Square but was bought by the National Maritime Museum two years later, to celebrate 75 years since its founding.
Up the hill of Greenwich Park is the work of one of Britain’s most famous and successful sculptors, Henry Moore. Standing Figure: Knife Edge was inspired in part by the elevated art of the 2nd Century BC Greek statue, the Winged Victory of Samothrace (in the Louvre, Paris), but also had a considerably more humble inspiration, a chicken bone! In its dramatic current setting at the top of the hill it is shown off to its best advantage, with the breadth and thinness of the piece interacting with panoramic view behind. As with all three-dimensional sculptures it is good to walk around it and experience the changing perspective as you do so.
Head along the river path towards the O2 Arena and you’ll find Richard Wilson’s A Slice of Reality. It comprises a section of an ocean-going sand dredger, not scaled down like Shonibare’s piece, but reduced in length by 85%, leaving just the habitable sections of the ship exposed; the bridge, accommodation and engine room. The work is a celebration of the merchant shipping that has used the Thames for centuries and also refers to the Greenwich Meridian Line, as though the line itself had sliced through the vessel. Wilson’s work can also be seen at Heathrow, where his monumental ‘Slipstream’ dominates the new Terminal 2 building.
Antony Gormley’s most famous work is probably The Angel of the North, which towers over the surrounding countryside in Newcastle. Greenwich, however, has Gormley’s tallest work, Quantum Cloud (pictured top), at 30 metres it is 10 metres higher than the Angel. Commissioned to commemorate the Millennium, it sits near the O2. It comprises of a series of steel bars forming a cloud. Within the cloud is a denser area, of a human form, originally cast from Gormley’s own body, as was The Angel of the North. For a great aerial view, grab your Oyster Card and take to the Emirates Air Line.
For details of tours Rosalind will be taking, and for links to the galleries, see her website artyfactsltd.com, where you can also find details of her weekly Art History lectures running from the end of September at the Bakehouse Theatre in the Age Exchange Centre, opposite Blackheath train station.