Royal Hospital Chelsea Photography Project: Unlikely friendships and Lasting Memories

Published: 20 May 2024
a chelsea pensioner taking part in a photogorgraphy class at the royal hospital chelsea

Not all of the courses at City Lit take place at our main building on Keeley Street. There are some courses which can lead you all over London, discovering different pockets of the city you may have not seen before. This is the case with the ‘Royal Hospital Chelsea photography project’.

As the name suggests, it takes place about a 30-minute tube ride away from City Lit, right in the heart of Chelsea. In this course, students have the opportunity to walk round the grounds of the Hospital and take photos of the building, gardens and people. Following this, there is an exhibition at City Lit to allow students to present their work. 

What’s so unique about the ‘photography project’ is that the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’ who live on the grounds also take part in the course. Under the guidance of tutor Michael Harding, students and in-pensioners collaborate to create fantastic photos, unlikely friendships and lasting memories. 

5 men pictured taking photos in the grand hall at the royal hospital chelsea5 men pictured taking photos in the grand hall at the royal hospital chelsea
Course tutor Michael Harding (middle) pictured with Chelsea Pensioners and City Lit photography students

Royal Hospital Chelsea 

The Royal Hospital Chelsea is a slightly deceptive name for the building itself. It’s not a ‘hospital’ in the modern sense of the word, but rather a retirement and nursing home for around 300 veterans of the British Army. 

The 66-acre grounds are a photographer’s dream. The site contains stunning gardens and incredible architecture and centuries-old artwork. Every year it hosts a variety of events with flocks of Londoners coming to visit, including the world-renowned Chelsea Flower Show

From a photography perspective, the incredible variety of things to capture means you walk away from the course with great pictures.
City Lit 'photography project' student

The In-Pensioners

Heading into the Royal Hospital Chelsea, you’ll see the in-pensioners (as opposed to 'out-pensioners' who don't live there) walking round the grounds getting on with their day. If you’re lucky, you may also catch them in their red uniforms, which is very much a sight to see!

When City Lit visited, we were greeted by the veteran Kenroy “Ken” McDonald. As well as being an in-pensioner himself, Ken is also an enthusiastic photographer. He takes part in the ‘photography project’ class with other City Lit students. While showing us round the grounds, he stopped in his workshop to show us some of his artwork, mostly black and white stills of the Hospital and the surrounding gardens.

Gathering round at the end of the class, Ken and the rest of the students presented what they had managed to snap that day. Shots of the dining hall, chapel and the pensioners themselves were met with encouragement from fellow classmates over a cup of tea.

Chelsea pensioner wearing unifrom taking a photograph with a cameraChelsea pensioner wearing unifrom taking a photograph with a camera
In-pensioner and army veteran Ken McDonald taking part in the City Lit 'photography project' class. Credit: Dan Waller

“Treated with such courtesy and warmth” 

The students and tutor Michael Harding adore Ken and the other pensioners. “The ability for us ‘civvies’ to be welcomed into someone’s home and be treated with such courtesy and warmth is amazing,” one of the students said. 

“Ken is so patient about everything.” 

Another student commented, “From a photography perspective, the incredible variety of things to capture means you walk away from the course with great pictures.” 

He continued, “But mixed in with that we have the privilege of being able to make friends with the people that served our country. It’s a stunning place.” 

For a number of the students, this year was the second (or even third) time that they had taken the course. The photography opportunities, great teaching and lasting friendships with the pensioners were a big reason why. 

Woman crouching down next to court sign taking a photoWoman crouching down next to court sign taking a photo
Students are encouraged to photograph all over the grounds at the Royal Hospital Chelsea

The Exhibition

The ‘Royal Hospital Chelsea photography project’ exhibition will take place in the City Lit Gallery from Saturday 25th May until Thursday 30th May 2024. 

It’s a great opportunity to get a flavour of the Royal Hospital Chelsea and get a snapshot of the people that live there. 

Photography at City Lit

Whilst the ‘Royal Hospital Chelsea photography project’ is one of our more unique courses, it is by no means the only provision that City Lit offers. The College has a wide range of photography courses which are suitable for all levels.

Our specialist photography studio located on Kean Street is great place to build up your knowledge, hone your craft and learn from industry professionals.

Study at City Lit

Check out the full list of photoraphy courses available at City Lit today:


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Royal Hospital Chelsea Photography Project: Unlikely friendships and Lasting Memories