Greenwich Park and the Royal Observatory

Greenwich Park and the Royal Observatory

Greenwich Park. 180 odd acres of trees, lawns and verdant delights in the urban setting that is South East London.

A Cool Morning One Early September

On a bright morning the park can be such a magical place, streams of sunshine flooding over from the east, squirrels scurrying about and the odd fox dashing across the grass.

Looking at that view you’d be forgiven for thinking it reflected the warmth of a summer’s morning but it’s early September and the air is cool and crisp. And even though the trees are still very green they lack the freshness of spring and early summer.

We’re facing southwards, our backs to the Queen’s House and the river Thames beyond, ahead of us we see the Royal Observatory Greenwich rising from a hill. This small cluster of buildings, their reddish bricks a nice contrast to the greenery that’s all around, has played an important role in the history of astronomy and navigational science.

A Brief History

17th Century Europe was brimming with seafaring nations eager to reap the rewards of exploration and adventure. Accurate navigation was needed to minimise the loss of ships and lives and this need required the proper charting of the stars. England was at the forefront of this maritime rush and in 1675 King Charles II asked Sir Christopher Wren to build an observatory on the site of an old castle in some royal grounds.

His choice of the site in what is now Greenwich Park was of historic significance, the Observatory marked the position of the Greenwich Meridian – the zero line of longitude from which time calculations are made and which divides the Earth into an Eastern and a Western hemisphere. Come here one evening to see a green laser light following that straight path northwards.

The building was completed quickly, within a year, later to be known as Flamsteed House after the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed. On top of its eastern turret is the red sphere of the Time Ball. The ball, one of the oldest time signals, was (and still is!) dropped down at 1pm everyday to signal an accurate time to ships passing along the Thames below.

The Octagon Room, the beautiful main observatory room, was designed with large windows so the Astronomer Royal could view the night skies. Unfortunately it wasn’t aligned with the meridian so astronomers couldn’t take positional readings from it.

Greenwich Observatory Stage1
Stage 1 – Ink Underpainting

Towards the left of the painting is the green onion dome that houses the Great Equatorial 28 inch refractor telescope that was first installed in 1893.

To the far left, about on the middle line, you should just be able to make out the black statue of General James Wolfe who led the British to victory over the French in a battle for control of Canada. He lived, and was buried, locally. The statue was erected in 1930.

A Bit Further Back in Time

The Greenwich Observatory was built over the ruins of Greenwich Castle. The old castle was originally built in the 1430s for the Duke of Gloucester. The Duke wanted a site positioned so he could secure the safety of London from any attack that came either along the Thames or along the old Roman road to Dover. This part of Greenwich was perfect for his needs and he built his watch tower on a hill there. One of the reasons for the speedy observatory build mentioned earlier was that they simply used the old castle foundations.

Greenwich Observatory Stage2
Stage 2 – A Few Casein Layers

Greenwich Park was made open to the public in the 18th century, before then it was strictly for royalty. Henry VIII is said to have introduced deer into the park for hunting, he apparently used the old castle as a hunting lodge, there are still a few deer held in an enclosure in the far south-east of the park today.

More Recently

The Royal Observatory is no longer a base for scientific study but it is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the other main sites of Maritime Greenwich.

Greenwich Observatory
Acrylics on Paper Postcard size

Above you can see a sketch of a similar view of the observatory from another photo. I used brown ink for a quick outline.

Greenwich Park itself is a wonderful space that is lovingly used by both locals and tourists. You will find people taking part in a host of activities – joggers, dog walkers, cyclists, dancers, bands and many more, including sweet chestnut pickers at the right time of the year! It is one of the starting points for the annual London Marathon and in 2012 hosted the equestrian (and some of the modern pentathlon) events for the London Olympics.

The park won a Lottery fund this year that will go towards upgrading some of its amenities including major landscaping work to restore historic features and new planting to enhance the wildlife.

Greenwich Observatory
Finished Painting

The Painting Process

After those few centuries of history the painting process will be very quickly described! The painting was created with casein on watercolour paper. I started with an acrylic ink underpainting the colours of which you can see peeking out here and there.

The palette used was ultramarine blue, phthalo blue, cadmium yellow, burnt umber, burnt sienna, titanium white and cadmium red (just for the time ball).

The painting is available on a range of prints and products.

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