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Sailing through history

From a church for injured sailors to the backdrop to a string of hit movies, the Old Royal Naval College’s chapel has a history as colourful as its exquisite ornate ceiling.

The chapel at the Royal Hospital for Seamen is one of the finest neoclassical churches in the country. Founded in 1751 after a design by Christopher Wren, it was a place where injured sailors would come to daily service. Devout or not, they were expected to stand (there were no benches then) to give thanks for the food and board they received.

Their able-bodied colleagues, meanwhile, might honour a different god, Bacchus, in comfort at one of the many pubs nearby. Sioban Clark, the chapel’s services officer today, says there were 88 licensed premises within walking distance of the hospital. “That’s an awful lot of drunken sailors!” she adds, laughing.

But the chapel was destroyed in 1779 when a fire tore through the building in the early hours of January 2. Clark says research points to a candle left burning after a long new year’s eve party. Strong easterly winds fanned the flames and, with the tide out, a chain gang used leather buckets to scoop up river water and put out the fire. Even so, the whole building was gutted, leaving only a shell.

The restoration job went to the hospital’s surveyor, one James Stuart, nicknamed “the Athenian” for the effect a trip to Greece had on his designs. This influence can be seen in the chapel’s Corinthian columns, for example, which stand on either side of the altar. Despite appearances, they are not made of marble but a mix of coloured plaster chippings and animal glue.

Another money-saving trick was the use of paintings in place of statuary. The artist Benjamin West – known as America’s Raphael – used a 3D effect called trompe l’oiel to create the life-size figures of apostles in the upper galleries. He also painted the vast altarpiece over seven years and at a cost of £1,000 to show St Paul’s shipwreck on the island of Malta.

The new chapel opened in 1798, less than 20 years after the fire. Today it looks much as it did back then, thanks to another restoration in 1951, during which the wall plaques and coloured glass that the Victorians had added were removed.

Clark’s favourite part of the chapel is its “marvellous” ceiling, one of the last ever plastered by hand. “Can you imagine how they managed to get it to curve, back in the 1780s?” she asks with awe. Another feature she likes to show visitors are the chapel’s floorboards, which were recycled from old ships. “Just think,” she says, “these floors have sailed the seven seas.”

She is keen to point out that the chapel is very much a working church, not a museum, used by a growing congregation for services, baptisms and weddings. Film fans can spot the chapel interior in a scene from 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which “father” Rowan Atkinson marries David Haig and pronounces Sophie Thompson as his “awful wedded wife”.

The chapel has also appeared in five more films, among them Patriot Games (1992) and The Queen (2006). Clark herself was an extra with other chapel staff in What a Girl Wants (2003). “All I remember,” she says, “is that it was a very long day for five minutes of film. Most of what they shot ended up on the cutting room floor.”

The chapel has also been on TV, notably in the Diamond Jubilee episode of Songs of Praise, when Richard Tanner, the then director of music, conducted the chapel choir, congregation and organ in the hymn Praise my Soul.

The organ was built by Samuel Green, the leading organ builder of his day, and has been in use nearly every day since 1789 – for recitals, evensong, and also by students at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance in Greenwich.

See othe Old Royal Naval College related features.

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