Anya Matthews, Research Curator

23 March 2017

The British decorative painter Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734) designed and painted the interior of the Old Royal Naval College, a process which took 19 years.  If we look at the West Wall, painted towards the end of this period, we can see how the artist had been drawn away from the swirling confusion of the Baroque style of painting seen in the Lower Hall ceiling, painted earlier, to a style of classical restraint and purity inspired by the great Renaissance artist Raffaelo Sanzio, known as Raphael.  Indeed, a set of Raphael’s tapestry cartoons was so important to Thornhill that he dedicated the last years of his life to copying the artworks. 

The west wall of the Painted Hall

The West Wall of the Painted Hall

Why?  And why did the Raphael cartoons come to have such huge importance to Thornhill and subsequent generations of British artists?

The story of Sir James Thornhill’s copies of Raphael’s cartoons weaves its way through more than a thousand miles of Europe from Rome to Brussels and London, and through 500 years of history from the High Renaissance to the present...


  Sir James Thornhill, detail on the Painted Hall

Renaissance Artist Raphael, left, and Sir James Thornhill, right. Thornill's self-portrait is at the northern end of the west wall in the Painted Hall

Raphael, Pope Leo X and the tapestry cartoons

To begin the story, we must go back to Rome in the early 1510s, when the newly-elected Pope Leo X commissioned leading painter Raphael to produce a series of ten full-scale designs—known as cartoons—for the production of vast tapestries depicting the Acts of St Peter and St Paul, the founders of the early Christian Church. These tapestries were intended for the lower walls of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, beneath Michelangelo’s spectacular ceiling paintings.

 Simon Gribelin, St Paul preaching at Athens

Simon Gribelin, Paul preaching at Athens. After Raphael. Engraving, 1720 © Victoria and Albert Museum

What is a cartoon?

The word cartoon comes from the Italian ‘cartone’, meaning a large piece of paper. 

Originally, it meant a full-size preparatory design for an artwork in another medium, like a wall painting or a tapestry [1]. After making small sketches, Raphael and his workshop would have created the cartoons by pasting together square sheets of paper and painting the large composition onto them using a mixture of distemper, pigment, water and animal glue. The cartoons were then cut into strips for use in the tapestry weaver’s loom, with the woven sections finally sewn together.

By 1521, Raphael’s monumental tapestries were complete, the weaving having taken place at the workshop of Pieter van Aelst in Brussels, the main centre for tapestry production in Europe at the time.  Once cut up for the looms, Raphael’s cartoons had served their intended purpose, but the artist had painted them to such a high standard that they came to be regarded as works of art in their own right and went on to have an afterlife far more extraordinary than the tapestries they were the studies for. 

How did the cartoons end up in England?

While the tapestries made their way to Rome, the cartoons ended up in Genoa. It was from here that the Charles, Prince of Wales (later Charles I), purchased seven of the ten for £300.  Miraculously, the cartoons survived the Civil War, when Charles was deposed and executed, and the ensuing dispersal of the Royal Collection by Oliver Cromwell. They became part of the Royal Collection once again in 1660 when Charles I’s son, Charles II, took up the succession. Later, King William III had them reassembled, displaying them in a dedicated gallery in his new State Apartments at Hampton Court Palace.

After a period of removal, first to Buckingham House and then Windsor Castle, the cartoons returned to Hampton Court in 1804. Here they stayed until 1865 when they were loaned by Queen Victoria to the new South Kensington Museum—now the Victoria and Albert Museum—where they are still on display in a special gallery.

James Stephanoff, Hampton Court Palace: The Cartoon Gallery

James Stephanoff, Hampton Court Palace: The Cartoon Gallery. Watercolour, 1818 © Royal Collection, RCIN 922136

Why were the cartoons so influential?

Backtrack to 1698 and the installation of the reassembled cartoons in William III’s new gallery.  At this time, the cartoons were the only monumental works of Renaissance art north of the Alps and as soon as they were hung in Hampton Court, they began to play a vital role in the development of English artistic taste.  Artist Jonathan Richardson, who wrote about art theory for a wide readership, declared them Raphael’s best work and the finest examples of artistic invention, expression and composition[2].

As the cartoons were not publicly accessible, copies were vital for bringing them to a wider audience.  Simon Gribelin was the first printmaker to issue a complete set of prints of the cartoons, in 1707.  Using printed copies of the cartoons for educational purposes was problematic, however, due to the lack of colour and the loss of painterly qualities. There could be no substitute for painted copies.  This where Thornhill enters the story.

Simon Gribelin, The Seven Famous Cartons [sic] of Raphael Urbin

Simon Gribelin, The Seven Famous Cartons [sic] of Raphael Urbin. Engraving, 1720 © Victoria and Albert Museum.  This describes their history and shows them in situ in Hampton Court Palace 

Thornhill’s copies

In the last two decades of his life, Thornhill turned his attention towards educating British artists, arguing for a Royal Academy that could train a British school of painters able to compete with continental Europe.  This drive for a Royal Academy led Thornhill to undertake the last major project of his career: the creation of three sets of painted copies of Raphael’s cartoons, for which he was granted a Royal Warrant in 1729.

 Just as he did with the Painted Hall ceiling, Thornhill made extensive pen and ink studies of Raphael’s cartoons.  Next, he set about the monumental task of producing the three painted sets: one full-size, one half-size and one quarter-size.

Sir James Thornhill, Details of the Raphael cartoon ‘The Healing of the Lame Man’

  Sir James Thornhill, Peter and John curing the Lame Man.

Left: Sir James Thornhill, Details of the Raphael cartoon ‘The Healing of the Lame Man’, pen and ink and wash on paper, some pencil, 1729-31 © Victoria and Albert Museum.  Right: Sir James Thornhill, Peter and John curing the Lame Man. Oil on canvas, 348 x 538 cm. 1729-31, © Royal Academy of Arts 

Raphael at the Old Royal Naval College

After Thornhill’s death, the full-size copies were bought by the Duke of Bedford.  In 1800 they were given to the Royal Academy, where they were used to educate generations of British artists, in exactly the manner Thornhill had envisaged[3]. The RA has recently conserved Thornhill’s vast canvases and, in a nice final twist to a fascinating story, three of them now hang in the Old Royal Naval College, just a few yards from the Painted Hall in the King Charles Court, now occupied by Trinity Laban Conservatoire.   

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[1] An 1843 Punch parody of the cartoons gave the word its commoner meaning today.

[2] Richardson, Jonathan The Theory of Painting (1715)

[3] You can view all of Thornhill’s full-size painted copies online by visiting and searching the collections.