This month we were delighted to welcome the historian Jeremy Barker to speak at the Old Royal Naval College as part of the Painted Hall project. A long-time resident of Sherborne in Sir James Thornhill’s native Dorset, Jeremy formed a Friends group to protect a Palladian house in the town whose chief glory is a small but sumptuous staircase mural by the artist. As plans got underway to conserve the Sherborne mural, Jeremy set about learning everything he could about Thornhill, who was knighted and is today best known for his work here at Greenwich. Jeremy shared some of these discoveries in a lecture every bit as lively and polymathic as the man it explored. A summary follows below.

-Anya Matthews, Research Curator for the Painted Hall


Sir James Thornhill, att. Dietrich Ernst Andreae © National Portrait Gallery

Sir James Thornhill

“Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734) was an ambitious, intelligent, hard-working, highly-skilled artist and founder of the English school of painting. He was also a polymath (interested in many subjects besides art), capable of great altruism, acutely aware of his social status, a bon viveur, a patriot, a brilliant networker and businessman, and a politician who seems to have been able to ride the waves of political uncertainty almost effortlessly.  It has always been difficult to talk about Sir James Thornhill for three reasons: first, he has been such a forgotten figure, neglected even by art historians. Secondly, sources are scarce. Thirdly, he was active in so many fields. Here is a list of just some of the roles he squeezed into his 59 years:

  1. Painter
  2. Architect (Moor Park in Hertfordshire; Thornhill House, Dorset and a proposal for the new church of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields)
  3. Designer of stage sets – Drury Lane and Hampton Court Theatre
  4. Decorator of coach panels (at least 8 survive)
  5. Decorator of ships
  6. Designer of statues (Clarendon Building, Oxford)
  7. Painter of Delft Pottery (today at the British Museum)
  8. Woodcut maker
  9. Traveller & diarist (Low Countries; 1711, France; 1717)
  10. Sergeant-Painter to the King (1720-1732)
  11. Gourmet
  12. Teacher of painting and drawing
  13. Copier of the Raphael cartoons (1729-31)
  14. Member of Parliament (1722-1734)
  15. Town Planner (Blandford Forum Town Hall – 1731)
  16. Master of the Painter-Stainers’ Company (1720)
  17. Fellow of the Royal Society (1723)
  18. Freemason (Master of Greenwich Lodge; 1725, Senior Warden, Grand Lodge; 1728)
  19. Designer of a firework stand to mark the Peace of Utrecht
  20. Designer of the Speaker’s Chair in the House of Commons
  21. Book Illustrator including illustrations for Flamsteed’s volume of astronomical observations
  22. Designer of stained glass windows for Westminster Abbey

So now to Greenwich Hospital and 1707. Why was an English-born painter chosen to decorate the interior of its great hall? And why Thornhill? A hundred years earlier the idea of commissioning an English painter to decorate such an important space would have been inconceivable. When Charles I wanted the ceiling of Whitehall’s Banqueting Hall adorned in the 1630s, Peter Paul Rubens of Antwerp was hired. Later, in the seventeenth century, the Italian Antonio Verrio was called upon by Charles II and William III for grand-scale decorations at Windsor Castle & Hampton Court Palace. But for Greenwich Hospital and St Paul’s Cathedral at the start of the eighteenth century only a native painter was acceptable. . .

The absence of native painters was much bemoaned in the decades of Thornhill’s birth and apprenticeship. William Aglionby, for example, wrote in his Painting Illustrated in 1685:

"I have often wondered, considering how much all Arts  and Sciences are improved in these Northern Parts, and particularly with us,  that we never produced an Historical Painter, Native of our own Soyle, [. . .] for a Painter we never had as yet any of Note that was an English Man, that pretended to a History-Painter. I cannot attribute this to any thing but the little Incouragement it meets with in this Nation; whose Genius most particularly lead them to affect Face-Painters."

There is no doubt in my mind that Aglionby’s was the sort of book that awakened and directed Thornhill’s ambition as a young artist. Hitherto, the likes of Hans Holbein, Rubens, Peter Lely, Godfrey Kneller, Verrio, and Louis Laguerre (not to mention a host of minor Dutch painters) had been preferred. But not now.

So now to how Thornhill won the Greenwich commission. Well, he needed advocates. There was no art market then as we know it and it was critical in that age for an aspiring painter to have the right patrons. As regards Greenwich, Thornhill was well placed. One of his first two independent, major commissions was for William Draper at Addiscombe House in Surrey.  Draper’s father-in-law was the diarist John Evelyn who was treasurer of Greenwich Hospital (Draper succeeded him in that post in 1703). Another early commission was for Thomas Foley MP at Stoke Court in Herefordshire. Foley was a neighbour of Sir James Bateman (1660-1718) a generous donor to Greenwich who had first proposed that the hall of Hospital be painted. Bateman must have seen Thornhill’s work at Foley’s house.  Later, Thornhill was to decorate Bateman’s house in Soho. More than that, Thornhill’s next commission was at Chatsworth House for the Duke of Devonshireanother Greenwich Commissioner. Not much is left of the mystery of Thornhill’s appointment!

Thornhill's Background

Thornhill was born in Weymouth in 1675 and these were troubled times indeed. It was to be a long time before political stability was to be achieved and memories of the Civil War were, of course, still very much alive. In 1685 there was Monmouth’s Rebellion. Monmouth landed in Lyme Regis in Dorset, no distance from Weymouth, and it was truly a fearful experience for those in Dorset and Somerset. William III landed at Torbay three years later and again people had to guess correctly which way to jump politically. There was the uprising in Ireland 1690 ending in the Battle of the Boyne, the abortive attempt at restoration of the Stuarts in 1708, the Jacobite uprising in 1715 (which got as far as Derby), further futile attempts in 1718, 1720 and 1721, and finally the second Jacobite rising in 1745. It’s hardly surprising that Whigs and Tories fought politics so bitterly! These were treacherous waters on which to launch a career that would depend on the patronage of Whigs and Tories alike–as Thornhill’s would.

The circumstances of Thornhill’s birth added to his problems. His father, Walter, was the sixteenth child of George Thornhull, a gentleman, and inheritor of estates at Stalbridge. The estates were heavily entailed and there was no chance of inheriting anything save the coat of arms and the status of Gentleman (both of which Thornhill made the best possible use of). Matters were made worse by his father absconding to avoid debt shortly after his birth, bringing disgrace on the family name.

He had better luck on his mother’s side: the Sydenhams of Wynford Eagle. They played a much more positive role. Thornhill’s great-uncle and benefactor Thomas Sydenham was a Fellow of All Souls’ College, Oxford (coincidentally Sydenham was a fellow student of Christopher Wren - two of whose greatest works, Greenwich Hospital and St Paul’s Cathedral, Thornhill was later to decorate). Sydenham became the most distinguished physician of his age and acquired a large house in Pall Mall where he is thought to have welcomed Thornhill, the son of his brother William’s daughter Mary. Sydenham bequeathed £30 to his great-nephew ‘to bind him out an apprentice to some profession or trade’.  Thornhill mixed easily and naturally with his social superiors, and clearly had a wide range of contacts in society through which to launch his remarkably successful career.  An upbringing in Sydenham’s grand house in Pall Mall could well have taught him this.


The ‘middling painter’ to whom Thornhill was apprenticed was Thomas Highmore of the Painter-Stainers’ Company.  Thornhill accompanied Highmore to the Painters’ Hall in Little Trinity Lane on 9 May 1689 to be bound apprentice. Very little is known about Highmore (1660-1720). He decorated wainscots and balustrades and was adept at trompe l’oeil effects.  He perhaps executed decorative schemes at Chatsworth House (1702-1708) and it may well be that he was accompanied there by his apprentice. He must have been very well connected to have obtained the lucrative post of Sergeant-painter to Queen Anne in 1703 and to have the position renewed on the accession of George I in 1714, holding it until his death in 1720 (when the office passed to Thornhill).  From him, Thornhill got a sound training and the indications all point to Thornhill maintaining his connection with his former master until the end of Highmore’s life.  From Highmore, Thornhill would have learnt the business of running a workshop to carry out the tasks of Sergeant-Painter. What was truly against the grain in Thornhill’s achievement was his breakthrough in capturing the great public contracts of his age, Greenwich Hospital and the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, to the exclusion of foreign painters.

From the Italian painter Antonio Verrio, meanwhile, Thornhill learnt many of techniques of mural painting with absolute mastery (though he favoured a softer colour palette): the use of feigned domes, balustrades, columns and pilasters, drapery, trophies, swags, reliefs of marble and trompe l’oeil statuary, with many putti scattered around!  

By 1707, when the Greenwich job came his way, Thornhill had become master of his trade and had proved it at least thrice over. He had also learnt the business of organising a team of assistants and acquired considerable management skills. More than that, he had established a formidable array of contacts, friends and patrons. These included two leading men of government: Lord Halifax, First Lord of the Treasury (who once said "if Thornhill doesn’t paint it, I won’t pay the bill") and Lord Sunderland, son-in-law of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. Thereafter, commissions came flooding in, be they from Whigs, from Tories or from the non-committed.

Thornhill won many honours for his work:

  • 1718 History Painter to the King
  • 1720 Knighthood (the first British artist to receive one)
  • 1720 Master of the Painter-Stainers’ Company
  • 1720 Sergeant-Painter
  • 1722 Member of Parliament (to 1734)
  • 1723 Fellow of the Royal Society
  • 1725 Master of Greenwich Masonic Lodge
  • 1728 Senior Warden, Grand Lodge


A sketch by Thornhill depicting himself, Sir Robert Walpole and the Speaker at the House of Commons © Yale Center for British Art

Thornhill was in Parliament then for fourteen years.  How then did he conduct himself as MP in this period? As regards his role in the Commons, it must be remembered that Thornhill was first and foremost a placeman. He is not recorded as having made a speech and he voted with the government, that is to say on the side of Sir Robert Walpole and the Whigs. One might reasonably have expected that Thornhill’s position at the centre of power might have brought him patronage as a painter and architect but the evidence is tantalisingly absent. It was in fact in the year of his first election, 1722, that he failed to get the commission to decorate Kensington Palace, something which as Sergeant-painter he had every right to expect. All we do have for sure from this aspect of his career is the painting, executed in partnership with Hogarth, reproduced as a mezzotint, of Speaker Onslow.

None of this added significantly to Thornhill’s career as painter and architect but what is apparent is that it is the same political message that he endeavoured to put over in the Painted Hall–the quest for political stability—which brings us full circle. The Painted Hall in Greenwich Hospital served, among many other things, a political end: the generation of the myth of a seamless progress of British history culminating, in Thornhill’s lifetime, with the peaceful Hanoverian succession. As regards the composition, Thornhill had an exceptional sense of spatial awareness. His task at Greenwich was infinitely more difficult than any other he had undertaken or would undertake given its great size. Thornhill was obliged to adopt multiple viewing points. I have never quite managed to work out how he managed this and at the same time made the whole composition appear so cohesive from wherever you stand.  But he did! Genius!

What resulted is a mingling of the actual, the classical and the allegorical. A word of caution—visitors  today come ill-equipped to understand what they see. Not only do we not understand fully the contorted history of Britain at that time (which contemporaries, of course, had lived through in whole or in part) but the ins and outs of classical mythology and the language of allegory are also often more distant to us today. It’s hard for us to make sense of all of thisespecially as Thornhill often made up his own allegory!

 Understanding the Painted Hall Ceiling

The central oval of the Painted Hall's lower hall ceiling 

Sowhat is there to explain and interpret? Let’s start in the middle of the Lower Hall ceiling.  It’s all about the Glorious revolution of 1688.  Dead centre is the Cap of Liberty, the so-called Phrygian Cap, made famous, if not notorious, in the French Revolution.  It is held in the left hand of William III (his sceptre held by Cupid) offering it to the figure of Europe. On his right is Queen Mary and the figure of Peace to whom William gives an olive branch. William appears to be negotiating between Peace and Europe. As expected at that time, both royal figures are perhaps rather wooden and a little exaggerated in size as befitted reigning monarchs but the first political message is easy to follow (though you might prefer to call it propagandist). To make the message clearer, William is trampling under foot the symbols of Tyranny and Arbitrary Power - Louis XIV with a broken sword and the exaggerated French and Papal crowns (contrast Mary’s and William’s simpler headgear). Below that again Time exposes Truth and Wisdom and Virtue, represented by Pallas and Hercules who are setting about destroying Calumny, Detraction and Envy with other Vices.  Architecture figures, too, displaying the King William building at Greenwich.

The overall effect would not disgrace a work by the Venetian school at its height. The attraction is enhanced by Thornhill’s alluring muted palette. Greenwich is mellower than, say, the Banqueting House ceiling: the cool browns, deep pinks and crimsons contrasting sympathetically with sea-greens, clear blues and whites. It is the finest baroque painting in England, if not north of the Alps, and one with a compelling political message

The Painted Hall is a masterwork. However often one sees it, it always takes one’s breath away: its scale, the number of figures and the skill and intelligence with which it was put together. For contemporaries it was a patriotic and a national triumph. For so long the lament had been that while England excelled in the other arts, no English school of painting had emerged. Now, most emphatically, it had. It is a powerful and brilliantly composed work of art in favour of the creation of that political stability that contemporaries craved. The myth of the seamless web of British history, of historical continuity was made and even accepted.

Finally: two questions. Can you think of an English artist who did so much in so many different ways and at so high a level? And why is Thornhill not as famous as Reynolds, Turner or Constable?


Painted Hall Ceiling Tours

The lower hall of the Old Royal Naval College’s Painted Hall boasts one of the most spectacular baroque decorative ceilings in the world.  During a major conservation project, visitors have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the drama of this vast masterpiece up close.  Book now to take a Ceiling Tour