James Thornhill

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Sir James Thornhill
James Thornhill self portrait.jpg
Self portrait, detail of a painting in the Painted Hall of the Greenwich Hospital, Greenwich, London
Born25 July 1675
Died4 May 1734(1734-05-04) (aged 58)
Buildings Moor Park
Sketch for the Painted Ceiling of the Great Hall, Greenwich Hospital: William and Mary Presenting the Cap of Liberty to Europe, about 1710, Sir James Thornhill V&A Museum no. 812-1877 Thornhillvanda.jpg
Sketch for the Painted Ceiling of the Great Hall, Greenwich Hospital: William and Mary Presenting the Cap of Liberty to Europe, about 1710, Sir James Thornhill V&A Museum no. 812–1877
West wall, Painted Hall, Greenwich Royal Naval College Greenwich panoramic.JPG
West wall, Painted Hall, Greenwich
Sabine bedroom, Chatsworth House, 1706 Rape of the Sabines, by James Thornhill, 1690s - Painted Antechamber, Chatsworth House - Derbyshire, England - DSC03298.jpg
Sabine bedroom, Chatsworth House, 1706
The staircase Hanbury Hall, murals completed c.1710 Hanbury Hall - panoramio (1).jpg
The staircase Hanbury Hall, murals completed c.1710
Dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, London 1714-17 Dome of st pauls.jpg
Dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, London 1714–17
Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton in old age by James Thornhill, 1709-1712. James Thornhill Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton.jpg
Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton in old age by James Thornhill, 1709–1712.

Sir James Thornhill (25 July 1675 or 1676 – 4 May 1734) was an English painter of historical subjects working in the Italian baroque tradition. He was responsible for some large-scale schemes of murals, including the "Painted Hall" at the Royal Hospital, Greenwich, the paintings on the inside of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, and works at Chatsworth House and Wimpole Hall.

Painting Practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a surface

Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a solid surface. The medium is commonly applied to the base with a brush, but other implements, such as knives, sponges, and airbrushes, can be used. The final work is also called a painting.

Baroque cultural movement, starting around 1600

The Baroque is a highly ornate and often extravagant style of architecture, music, dance, painting, sculpture and other arts that flourished in Europe from the early 17th until the mid-18th century. It followed Renaissance art and Mannerism and preceded the Rococo and Neoclassical styles. It was encouraged by the Catholic Church as a means to counter the simplicity and austerity of Protestant architecture, art and music, though Lutheran Baroque art developed in parts of Europe as well.



Thornhill was born in Melcombe Regis, Dorset, the son of Walter Thornhill of Wareham and Mary, eldest daughter of Colonel William Sydenham, governor of Weymouth. In 1689 he was apprenticed to Thomas Highmore (1660–1720), a specialist in non-figurative decorative painting. He also learned a great deal from Antonio Verrio and Louis Laguerre, two prominent foreign decorative painters then working in England. He completed his apprenticeship in 1696 and, on 1 March 1704, became a Freeman of the Painter-Stainers' Company of London.

Melcombe Regis human settlement in United Kingdom

Melcombe Regis is an area of Weymouth in Dorset, England.

Wareham, Dorset town in Dorset

Wareham is a historic market town and, under the name Wareham Town, a civil parish, in the English county of Dorset. The town is situated on the River Frome eight miles (13 km) southwest of Poole.

Weymouth, Dorset Town in Dorset, England

Weymouth is a seaside town in Dorset, England, situated on a sheltered bay at the mouth of the River Wey on the English Channel coast. The town is 11 kilometres (7 mi) south of Dorchester and 8 kilometres (5 mi) north of the Isle of Portland. Weymouth has a metropolitan population of 71,611 (2018). The town is the third largest settlement in Dorset after Bournemouth and Poole.

Decorative schemes

Thornhill decorated palace interiors with large-scale compositions, with figures commonly shown in idealized and rhetorical postures. In 1707 he was given the commission to decorate the Hall now known as the "Painted Hall" at Greenwich Naval College (17071727). The scheme of allegorical wall and ceiling decorations of the hall depicts the Protestant succession of English monarchs from William III and Mary II to George I.

William III of England King of England, Scotland and Ireland

William III, also widely known as William of Orange, was sovereign Prince of Orange from birth, Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Guelders and Overijssel in the Dutch Republic from the 1670s and King of England, Ireland and Scotland from 1689 until his death, co-reigning with his wife, Queen Mary II. Popular histories usually refer to their joint reign as that of William and Mary. As King of Scotland, he is known as William II. He is sometimes informally known as "King Billy" in Northern Ireland and Scotland, where his victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 is still commemorated by Unionists and Ulster loyalists.

Mary II of England Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland

Mary II was Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland, co-reigning with her husband, King William III & II, from 1689 until her death. Popular histories usually refer to their joint reign as that of William and Mary.

George I of Great Britain King of Great Britain and Ireland

George I was King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1 August 1714 and ruler of the Duchy and Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hanover) in the Holy Roman Empire from 23 January 1698 until his death in 1727. He was the first British monarch of the House of Hanover.

On 28 June 1715 Thornhill was awarded the commission to decorate the dome of St Paul's Cathedral by "a whig, low-church dominated committee inspired by a moral Anglican nationalism". [1] The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Tenison, is said to have remarked: "I am no judge of painting, but on two articles I think I may insist: first that the painter employed be a Protestant; and secondly that he be an Englishman". [1] The Weekly Packet said that the decision to award Thornhill the commission would "put to silence all the loud applauses hitherto given to foreign artists". [1] The eight scenes in the dome (1716–19), executed in grisaille, show episodes from the Life of St. Paul.

St Pauls Cathedral Cathedral in the City of London, England

St Paul's Cathedral, London, is an Anglican cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of London and the mother church of the Diocese of London. It sits on Ludgate Hill at the highest point of the City of London and is a Grade I listed building. Its dedication to Paul the Apostle dates back to the original church on this site, founded in AD 604. The present cathedral, dating from the late 17th century, was designed in the English Baroque style by Sir Christopher Wren. Its construction, completed in Wren's lifetime, was part of a major rebuilding programme in the City after the Great Fire of London. The cathedral building largely destroyed in the Great Fire, now often referred to as Old St Paul's Cathedral, was a central focus for medieval and early modern London, including Paul's walk and St. Paul's Churchyard being the site of St. Paul's Cross.

Thomas Tenison Archbishop of Canterbury

Thomas Tenison was an English church leader, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1694 until his death. During his primacy, he crowned two British monarchs.

<i>Grisaille</i> painting technique

A grisaille is a painting executed entirely in shades of grey or of another neutral greyish colour. It is particularly used in large decorative schemes in imitation of sculpture. Many grisailles include a slightly wider colour range, like the Andrea del Sarto fresco illustrated. Paintings executed in brown are referred to as brunaille, and paintings executed in green are called verdaille.

Thornhill's vast murals in great houses often related to topical events, as seen through the eyes of his mainly Whig patrons. At Chatsworth, during 1707-8 Thornhill painted a number of walls and ceilings, the most notable being the continuous wall and ceiling painting of the Sabine room, then a lobby, but since used as a bedroom. Here he painted The Rape of the Sabine Women, a vast panorama of mounted warriors carrying off the Sabine women to Rome. He chooses to feature strongly Hersilia, who was deified for her loyalty to her Roman husband, Romulus, as against her Sabine family - a deliberate reference to Mary, lauded by the Whigs for supporting her Protestant husband, William, against her Catholic father, James.

The Rape of the Sabine Women Episode in the history of Rome

The Rape of the Sabine Women was an incident in Roman mythology in which the men of Rome committed a mass abduction of young women from the other cities in the region. It has been a frequent subject of artists, particularly during the Renaissance and post-Renaissance eras.

Hersilia Roman mythology

In Roman mythology, Hersilia was a figure in the foundation myth of Rome. She is credited with ending the war between Rome and the Sabines.

Romulus one of the twin brothers of Romes foundation myth

Romulus was the legendary founder and first king of Rome. Various traditions attribute the establishment of many of Rome's oldest legal, political, religious, and social institutions to Romulus and his contemporaries. Although many of these traditions incorporate elements of folklore, and it is not clear to what extent a historical figure underlies the mythical Romulus, the events and institutions ascribed to him were central to the myths surrounding Rome's origins and cultural traditions.

At Hanbury Hall, beneath an imposing view of both the Olympian Gods and the story of Achilles which dominates the ceiling of the main staircase, Thornhill added a small portrait of Rev Henry Sacheverell, a Tory propagandist put on trial for sedition by the Whig government in 1710, being cast to the Furies to be burnt. In 1716 Thornhill painted the ceiling of the Great Hall in Blenheim Palace for John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, newly returned to the country after being prosecuted by the Tory ministry in the last years of Queen Anne. The subject is, inevitably, the Duke's 1704 victory at the Battle of Blenheim, during the War of the Spanish Succession.

Hanbury Hall Grade I listed historic house museum in Wychavon, United Kingdom

Hanbury Hall is a large stately home, built in the early 18th century, standing in parkland at Hanbury, Worcestershire.

Henry Sacheverell English politician

Henry Sacheverell was an English high church Anglican clergyman who achieved nationwide fame in 1709 after preaching an incendiary 5 November sermon. He was subsequently impeached by the House of Commons and though he was found guilty, his light punishment was seen as a vindication and he became a popular figure in the country, contributing to the Tories' landslide victory at the general election of 1710.

Tory A conservative political philosophy

A Tory is a person who holds a political philosophy known as Toryism, based on a British version of traditionalism and conservatism, which upholds the supremacy of social order as it has evolved in the English culture throughout history. The Tory ethos has been summed up with the phrase "God, Queen, and Country". Tories generally advocate monarchism, and were historically of a high church Anglican religious heritage, opposed to the liberalism of the Whig faction.

His last major commission was to paint the chapel at Wimpole Hall; [2] he started work on the preliminary sketches in 1713 and the work was finished by 1724. The north wall has fictive architecture and four Trompe-l'œil "statues" of the four Doctors of the Church. [3] The east wall above the altar is painted with the Adoration of the Magi.

In 1725 he offered to paint decorations for the ceiling of the New Council Chamber at the Guildhall in the City of London. He gave his services free, although he was rewarded with a valuable gold cup. The chamber was later demolished, though some of the paintings – an Allegory of London, and representations of the Cardinal Virtues, personified as naked children – survive. [4]

Other works

In his native Dorset Thornhill decorated the reredos at St. Mary's Church, Weymouth, with a picture of the Last Supper.Thornhill was also a notable portraitist.

Drawing academies

In 1711, Thornhill was one of the twelve original directors of Sir Godfrey Kneller's academy at Great Queen Street, London. In 1716, he succeeded Kneller as Governor there and held the post until 1720. He then established his own private drawing school at Covent Garden, but this soon closed. In November 1724, Thornhill made a second, more successful, attempt to establish a new free academy in his private house at Covent Garden.

William Hogarth

William Hogarth seems to have been a member of Thornhill's second academy from the beginning. On 23 March 1729 he married Thornhill's daughter Jane. Thornhill was with Hogarth when he went to see Sarah Malcolm in Newgate prison just days before her execution. This was in order that Hogarth might record her portrait. [5]


In June 1718 George I made Thornhill court painter, and in March 1720 Serjeant Painter, succeeding his former master Highmore in the latter role. On 2 May 1720, the king knighted him, the first native artist to be knighted. [6] In the same year, he was master of the Painters' Company and in 1723 fellow of the Royal Society.

Political career

Thornhill was returned unopposed as Member of Parliament for Melcombe Regis at the 1722 British general election. He was returned in a contest at the 1727 British general election. During his time, he voted regularly with the Government. He presented to the church an altar -piece painted by himself. [7]

Houses and architecture

In 1718 Thornhill took a large house on Covent Garden Piazza, and in 1725 he renovated Thornhill House in the south of Stalbridge, near Sturminster Newton, Dorset, in the Palladian manner. [8]

In 1720 he tried his hand at architecture. Along with Giacomo Leoni, he designed Moor Park, [9] for which he also painted the entrance hall ceiling and other rooms.

Raphael cartoons

Towards the end of his life Thornhill was receiving no major commissions, so he began to copy the Raphael Cartoons, then at Hampton Court. Apart from full-size copies, completed in 1731, he made 162 smaller studies of heads, hands and feet intending to publish them in printed form for the use of art students, but left this work unfinished at his death. The original small wash designs of details of the cartoons are now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Thornhill's copies of the cartoons were sold by auction by Christopher Cock on 24 and 25 February 1735 at his room in the Great Piazza, Covent Garden. [10]

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  1. 1 2 3 Barber, Tabitha. "Thornhill, Sir James (1675/6–1734)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography . Oxford University Press. Retrieved 23 September 2010.(subscription or UK public library membership required)
  2. Souden 2004, p. 14
  3. Souden 2004, p.77
  4. Manners and Morals: Hogarth and British Painting 1700-1760 . London: Tate Gallery. 1987. pp. 57–9.
  5. Ian Donnachie, ‘Malcolm, Sarah (c.1710–1733)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 7 Aug 2014
  6. Harmsworth Encyclopedia 1905
  7. "THORNHILL, Sir James (c.1675-1734), of Thornhill, Dorset". History of Parliament Online. Retrieved 3 May 2019.
  8. "Thornhill Park, Stalbridge, Dorset" (PDF).
  9. Hussey, Christopher (1955). English Country Houses Early Georgian 1715-1760. Country Life. p. 43.
  10. Cock, Christopher (1735). A catalogue of the intire collection belonging to Sir James Thornhill, late principal history painter to His Majesty, &c. London: Christopher Cock.

Further reading

Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
Daniel Harvey
William Betts
Thomas Littleton
Edward Harrison
Member of Parliament for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis
With: William Betts 17221730
Thomas Pearse 17221727, 17271734
John Ward 17221726
John Willes 17261727
Edward Tucker 17271734
George Dodington 17301734
Succeeded by
Edward Tucker
Thomas Pearse
George Dodington
George Dodington