The Great Hall

The Great Hall is the central jewel in the crown of this magnificent if yet unrecognised Heritage Site, consisting of the Gatehouse (1703), the Parish Church of St. Bartholomew’s the Less, with its 12th century tower, the remaining three James Gibbs blocks forming the North, East and West Wings built between 1732 and 1769, around a grand Square, with its elegant Fountain (1859). Alongside the Gatehouse are some fine Grade II listed Victorian Hardwick buildings.

Easily the grandest of these buildings is the Grade I listed North Wing with its 100 x 30 ft. Governors or Great Hall, which was built to house the financial and management functions of The Hospital. The costs of running The Hospital were not borne from taxes, insurance or private investment, but by voluntary donations from benefactors. The Governors used the Hall to hold its meetings and to welcome and entertain the great and the good of the City to attract them to become donors, whose names and the sums of their donation were inscribed on its walls. Patient care was provided in the other wings of The Hospital, as it still is today.

The Great Hall is situated on the first floor of The North Wing. It is approached by way of a grand staircase, The Hogarth Stair, the walls of which were decorated by William Hogarth (1697-1764). As the top of the staircase is reached, the Great Hall is accessed by a dominating doorway that opens up into the large Hall decorated with portraits and dedications to the early contributors to the redevelopment of The Hospital. Most striking is the portrait of Henry VIII at the West end of the room, hands on hips and glaring down at all who enter. A combination of the majesty of the stairway and the ever-watching gaze of this most belligerent of monarchs makes this a suitably intimidating arena in which to examine final year medical students!

The Henry VIII portrait is a copy of an original that was hung in the Palace of Whitehall until it was destroyed by fire in 1698. The original was a group that depicted Henry with Jane Seymour, along with his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, the Queen Consort. The original hanging of the portrait in The Great Hall was supervised by James Gibbs and William Hogarth in 1738.

A central fireplace is decorated by a portrait of St Bartholomew. Opposite this is the Charter Window, not installed until 1743, depicting Henry VIII presenting his Charter to Thomas Vicary, arguably the saviour of Barts in the 16th Century, on the foundation of the new hospital. Opposite Henry VIII and forever meeting his eye is a hung portrait of Edward VII. The Charter Window pre-dates the current building, having been installed from the previous Great Hall, dating to the 16th or 17th century.

Other important works include portraits of Percivall Pott painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds and of James Paget by Sir John Millais, which along with portraits of John Abernethy and William Harvey hang in the rooms surrounding the hall (they can be seen in our section on artwork and portraits).

The ceiling was decorated in gold leaf by Jean Baptiste St Michell and represents his only work in England. The Walls are lined with the names of the benefactors that supported The Hospital from its re-foundation onwards and those that made the redevelopment of The Hospital possible after the near-bankruptcy that it faced after The Fire of London. The names run from 1546 until 1905, at which point space ran out. It is for this reason that we cannot, I fear, promise you space on the wall for your name should you contribute to the restoration of The North Wing. However, if you donate at our just giving page, you do have the option of having your name listed there!

Following the inception of the National Health Service in 1948, the funding of Barts – like other hospitals – became the responsibility of the government and so the functions of The Great Hall gradually changed to more general uses such as an examination hall for students, award ceremonies, receptions, dinners and cultural events. Many of the fine rooms around the Great Hall were used as administrative offices and meeting rooms, and a banal but inappropriate Finance block was tacked on to the east end in the 1960s, along with a hideously ugly Pathology Laboratory block to the west end. How planners allowed these structures to mar the perfect symmetry of Gibbs neo-Palladian masterpiece is beyond comprehension.

Header photo © David Butler

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