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Greenwich Royal Hospital


The Museum holds 89 sheets of drawings for Greenwich Royal Hospital in four locations: volume 109 (73 sheets), volume 111 (12 sheets), drawer 47/7 (3 sheets), and drawer 43/10/11 (1 sheet). This collection is the most complete surviving of any for the royal hospital for seamen, since all but two stages in the history of the design and construction between 1694 (the earliest scheme) and 1735 (start of work on the last main phase) are represented. The missing two schemes are: [1] 'Side-step scheme' (1694-95) and [4] 'Four-block scheme' (1695-96). Drawings for these two schemes are at All Souls College, Oxford (G.186, 187 and 188-92), and are described here for completeness. The other two principal collections are at Royal Museums Greenwich (National Maritime Museum library) and the Drawings Collection of the British Architectural Libary / RIBA, held at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Design and construction history

In 1691 Queen Mary signalled her desire to grant John Webb's King Charles II Building (1664-72) at Greenwich Palace for use 'as a hospital for seamen'. Spurred on by the casualties sustained at the naval battle at La Hogue in May 1692, she and King William III made a formal grant of the building 'to be a hospital for wounded seamen' in October that year (Bold 2000, p.95).

Although Wren visited the site in January 1693, there is no evidence at this stage of any grander intent beyond converting John Webb's unfinished palace range, the King Charles II Building, which the king had ordered in 1663 as the west wing of an open-courtyard palace, facing the river. The middle range would have had a domed central hall, on the axis of the Queen's House. The first official reference to the grant of a specific site is in a memorandum of 4 October 1694 to Treasury Commissioners, signed by Samuel Travers, the Surveyor General of Crown Lands, in Wren's Book of 'Court Orders' (SM, volume 165; Wren Society, vol. XVIII, 1941, p.111). This describes the site that was formerly granted in a Warrant dated 25 October 1694 (backdated from March 1695; National Archives, ADM, 75/15). The site was to be bounded by the River Thames on the north and the garden of the Queen's House on the south; but it was to be divided in two halves by an avenue 115 feet wide extending from the Queen's House to the river. The evidence of the drawings and the minutes of the Grand Committee, appointed on 14 May 1695, indicates that Wren initially regarded this grant of land as provisional and open to negotiation (see scheme [2]).

Schemes [2] and [3] exceed the grant of land and can be related to advice that Wren and others on the Grand Committee gave to Commissioners in May and September 1695. These two schemes were probably preceded by another early proposal, the 'side-step scheme' [1], in which the hospital is set immediately to the east of the avenue from the Queen's House to the river. It has always been assumed that central domed scheme [2] and the seven-block scheme [3] pre-date the formal grant of land in October 1694. The grant was marked out on a survey drawing in that month but not confirmed until March 1695, when the warrant for the new hospital was issued and 'letters patent' were sent out to appoint nearly 200 Commissioners and Trustees to oversee the project. There is, however, no evidence of any instruction to Wren to prepare a design before the first meeting of the Commissioners on 14 May 1695. It is argued here that these schemes are from 1695, and are the first of several fully worked up proposals for enlargement beyond the grant of land. Between the seven-block scheme and the executed design is an important intermediary stage that aids our understanding of the genesis of the final plan: the 'four-block' plan at All Souls College [4].

The seven-block scheme would have accommodated 3,888 men in the 12 wards south of the hall and chapel ranges (six on each side). The four-block scheme would have involved a loss of half the number of ward blocks, from six on each side of the axis to three. As the new blocks would have accommodated the same number of men (108 per floor, making 324 in each block), the scheme would have offered 1944 beds in the six blocks. More beds could have been provided in the King Charles II Court and its pendant, giving a total similar to the 2376 in the 'side-step' scheme [1].

The decision to start work on a specific design was taken on 17 January 1696, when designs were 'laid before the [Fabric] Committee' and approved (ADM, 67/1; Wren Society, VI, p. 33). This was the 'three-block scheme' [3]. It is so called because the hall and dormitory ranges of the upper (southern) courts are in three parallel blocks either side of the avenue, the blocks on the north side, closest to the river, being for the hall and chapel, as in the seven-block scheme. The hall and chapel ranges are now detached from the two principal front ranges with their ends facing the river: the King Charles II Building and its base wing on the west side of the central avenue, and the matching ranges on the east side. The east ranges were known initially as 'King William's Wing', then as 'Princess Anne's Court', and finally as 'Queen Anne's Court'.

The first phase of the executed design is known from a detailed set of drawings in Hawksmoor’s hand for the conversion of the King Charles II Building and the construction of its base wing, dated by the attached royal warrant to 29 April 1696 (National Maritime Museum, ART/3). Related to these is [5/1], a part-plan of the King Charles II Buliding and base wing (SM volume 109/62), and a block plan of 1698 in the Lambeth Palace Library (MSS, 933/99; Bold, Greenwich, fig. 140). This scheme was approved for engraving in December 1698 and the prints were issued in early September the following year (Wren Society, VI, p. 83 top, and VIII, pl. 24). On 9 April 1700 the Fabric Committee ordered that the engravings should be issued to subscribers. By then Wren had revised the three parallel ranges to rectangular courts facing the central avenue. This is the plan of the executed scheme in the surviving small-scale model, paid for in January 1699 [6].

Wren and Evelyn showed the model and 'the printed draughts of the Hospitall' to King William III on 3 April 1700. He approved the scheme and ordered 'the diligent carrying on of the building' (ibid., p. 41). In the engraving of the three-block scheme, printed in September 1699 (Wren Society, VI, p. 83), the Base Wing of the later-named Queen Anne's Court is identical to that of the King Charles II Building. Work on the foundations of the end-pavilions of the 'Queen Anne' Base Wing began soon after 9 April 1700 and continued in December that year (ADM, 67/2; Wren Society, VI, pp. 41-42). By then the central range of the Base Wing had been set back further from the front range than in the engraved plan of 1699, creating a larger central court than on the west side, behind the King Charles II Building.

By May 1701 work was well in hand on the stonework of the Doric portico of the King William West Dormitory. This is the other major revision to the engraved plan of 1699. Its implementation had been delayed by about two years. The authorship of the West Dormitory has been much debated. The most likely hypothesis is that 'Wren gave Hawksmoor his own way with this part of the design, and that, while he would not have produced it himself, he not only tolerated it but saw that it was exciting -- even if dangerously fanciful' (Downes 1979, p.86).

The 'final scheme' [10] is datable to 1712. It involved the doubling of the north pavilions of King Charles II and Queen Anne Buildings as enlargements of the existing north pavilions of the Base Wings of these courts. This design followed several abortive schemes by Hawksmoor in 1711 for the enlargement of the hospital southwards, on the site of the garden of the Queen's House and the Queen's House itself [7], [8] and [9]. Work progressed on [10] with some revisions until Thomas Ripley's appointment as Surveyor in 1729, although in 1728 Hawksmoor prepared a further enlargement scheme, based on his third enlargement scheme of 1711 [9], but now with a fully worked up design for an infirmary on land that had been acquired in 1714. Ripley's revised final scheme[12] involved major revisions to the East Dormitory of Queen Mary's Court, both to increase the bed accommodation and to bring the external elevations into line with current Palladian taste.

Principal bibliographic and documentary sources

Bold 2000. John Bold (et al.), Greenwich: An Architectural History of the Royal Hospital for Seamen and the Queen's House (New Haven and London, 2000)
Colvin 1964. Howard Colvin, Catalogue of Architectural Drawings in Worcester College Library (Oxford, 1964)
Colvin 2008. Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840 (New Haven and London, 2008)
Downes 1979. Kerry Downes, Hawksmoor (London, 1979)
Downes 1982. Kerry Downes, Wren (London, 1982)
Geraghty 2007. Anthony Geraghty, The Architectural Drawings of Sir Christopher Wren at All Souls College, Oxford, a Complete Catalogue (Aldershot, 2007).
Hart 2002. Nicholas Hawksmoor, Rebuilding Ancient Wonders (New Haven and London, 2002)
Wren Society. A.T. Bolton and H.D. Hendry (eds), The Wren Society (20 vols, Oxford, 1924-43), vols VI (1929) and VIII (1931).

The primary documentary sources for the chronology of the design and the sequence of construction are mostly in the National Archives at Kew. They are the Minutes of the Grand Committee (appointed by the Commissioners in May 1695), ADM, 72/1; the Minutes of the Fabric Committee (active from January 1696), ADM, 72/2; the Works Accounts (one volume per calendar year, beginning in 1696), ADM, 68/670 ff.; deeds and charters relating to the original grant of land and the acquisition of additional land by the Trustees and Commissioners of Greenwich Hospital (ADM, 75/various); and site maps and surveys prepared from 1693 onwards (MR, 1/21, 253, 329 (2); CRES, 2/1642; MPE, 1/245). Edited extracts from the Grand and Fabric Committee Minutes up to 1716, and a few later passages (although none from the Works Accounts), were published in Wren Society, vol. VI (1929), pp. 32-76.
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