Tom Ryley, Communications and Digital Officer

04 November 2016


History often overlooks Sir James Thornhill, mentioned occasionally as the haughty father-in-law of William Hogarth, who eloped with his daughter Jane in 1729. Yet, in his day, the artist was a superstar, whose decoration of the Painted Hall earnt him a fortune, a knighthood, and widespread renown as the “greatest History painter this Kingdom ever produced.” Until September 2017, you can get up close to his masterpiece on a Painted Hall Ceiling Tour.

In 1707, a young and talented painter, James Thornhill, was given a commission beyond his wildest dreams: decorate the Painted Hall of the new Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich. Having only completed his apprenticeship four years earlier, now Thornhill was presented with a project that would take him twenty years, defining his career and bringing him to pre-eminence on the English artistic scene.

Humble Beginnings

What little we know about Thornhill’s childhood reiterates the scale of his success. Born in 1675 or 1676 as the youngest of sixteen from a minor landed family in Dorset, Thornhill was taken up by his great-uncle in London after his father absconded to New England to evade unpaid debts.

Luckily, his great-uncle was Dr Thomas Sydenham, a successful physician, and Thornhill was left £30 for apprenticeship to some trade or profession. In 1689, Thornhill was apprenticed to a relative, Thomas Highmore, who would later become sergeant-painter to William III.

Little survives from Thornhill’s early period, but we know the young Thornhill was greatly influenced by the work of the Italian and French baroque painters Antonio Verrio and Louis Laguerre, possibly assisting the former in the decoration of Hampton Court Palace. This continental style was just becoming fashionable in England, and Thornhill’s training in the style undoubtedly helped to win the Painted Hall commission.

The upper hall in the Painted Hall at the start of the Painted Hall Project

The upper Painted Hall as work begins on the Painted Hall Project


The Painted Hall

The Painted Hall was Thornhill’s greatest secular commission and occupied him throughout his career. He concentrated on the lower hall first, producing an incredibly complex and elaborate work that glorifies William III and Queen Mary, as well as Britain’s maritime strength and mercantile prosperity. By its completion in 1714 the lower hall was lauded as a ‘great and Noble design, an Honour to our Nation’.

Payment for the work, however, was scarce; by 1717 Thornhill had received only £635 and his requests for further payment were disputed by the governors. It was only after Nicholas Hawksmoor and John James, the clerks of the works at Greenwich, and leading painters, gave favourable reviews of the work, that the governors agreed to pay him. That Thornhill refused to remove the scaffolding in the hall also helped. By the end of the twenty-year project Thornhill had earnt a huge sum of £6685, and widespread exposure to wealthy patrons in the highest tiers of society.

You can see this vast work of art - London's largest painted ceiling - up close on a Painted Hall Ceiling Tour.

Master

The Painted Hall catapulted Thornhill to artistic fame. He won important commissions, including the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, the chapel ceiling of Queen’s College Oxford and the hall of Blenheim Palace. A string of honours also followed - he was appointed history painter-in-ordinary to the king in 1718, sergeant-painter to the king in 1720, and knighted in the same year. He was even able to purchase works by famous painters Carracci and Poussin, which he showed extensively to his friends.

Far from a one-hit-wonder, Thornhill was a prolific artist and the breadth and importance of his commissions make him an important player in the history of English art. Despite his obscurity today, he greatly influenced later painters, schooling a great many apprentices, amongst them William Hogarth, who would state it was “the Painting of St Paul’s and Greenwich Hospital which were… running in my head”. Thornhill and his Painted Hall represent an important moment in British art history, and it is hoped that the conservation of the Painted Hall will bring more attention to the work of this painter and his monuments.


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