Look Up… (1)

…Something we should all learn to do more often.

New season, new series today. Inspired by Brian, who has lived in Greenwich all his life and, now he’s retired, has taken to walking around with his camera and doing just that – looking up.

He’s found some curious statue-y-carving type things and has asked if there’s any specific meaning to them. They’re at the Old Royal Naval College, very high up, and at the Park Row end of things.
I’ve been doing some digging around, but although there’s plenty of general meaning to these carvings, I can’t find much specific. Judging from the style of the work, I’d say they almost certainly date back to the building of Greenwich Hospital, and they are ornaments that directly relate to its purpose.
This is my best guess:
It was Queen Mary (of WilliamandMary fame) who inspired the hospital after having seen the dreadful injuries that old sailors had suffered at the sundry wars and scrapes that Britain had found herself in during the 17th Century. The final straw was the Battle of the Hogue – a great naval victory at huge human cost. Building a hospital for heroes was the perfect excuse to brag about Britain’s greatness whilst actually doing something practical.
Absolutely everything on the new building needed to prove how brilliant Britain was as an international force and no stone (or in this case statue) was left unadorned in the pursuit of patriotism.
This was a period where classicism was top. Architects such as Wren, who designed the thing, were hugely influenced by the ancient structures in Rome. Palladio and Inigo Jones had paved the way in the previous century and now classical columns and capitals were all the rage. Everyone was Roman-mad.
And of course, the King wanted-in. He wanted everyone to associate himself with the great Roman generals – and both he and his descendants liked to dress up in what they thought was authentic Roman armour. They particularly liked being painted or sculpted wearing leather skirts, grieves, helmets etc and carrying shields and spears. Of course it was nothing like the real Romans would have worn but the style is so very encased in aspic that it’s easy to spot paintings and carvings of that period for what they’re not
The picture Brian’s sent me is a really good – well-preserved (or restored?) – example of that armour-and-helmet ensemble. The King may not actually be inside it, but the meaning’s clear. This building represents Britain’s naval might – equated with one of the great Classical empires. It’s a warlike impression of the sea. Below is another splendid fellow I snapped round the back of the Pepys Centre, sadly rather weather-worn and thus frankly a bit creepy, but just get that Union flag on the shield. No messing about here.


As for the fish, I’m assuming that it’s all symbolic of this being a specifically naval hospital, as opposed to the Army Hospital at Chelsea. Another really popular motif at this time was sundry sea-monsters. I often find it hard to work out whether these fantasy fish are supposed to be fish or dolphins – but I’m pretty sure that these particular chaps are fish. I’d be surprised if they were dolphins given the fact that Britain was almost perpetually at war with France, and dolphins being a popular French symbol, these guys are not being ground underfoot by the king…

More looking-up in Greenwich another day…


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