The Painted Hall: Your questions answered. . .

Was Thornhill given any direction by the Governors of Greenwich Hospital or was he permitted ‘artistic license?’

The final composition of the Painted Hall ceiling is Thornhill’s own but throughout the project he was required to present ideas to the hospital governors for approval in the form of preparatory sketches, following which changes were often made. For example, in July 1707 when considering Thornhill’s first proposal for the lower hall ceiling, the governors asked him to ‘make such Alterations in his designe, in inserting what more he can relating to maritime affairs, til the same be approved by the board’. As a result, Thornhill introduced, among other components, the two great sterns we see today at either end of the ceiling. About forty of Thornhill’s preparatory sketches for the Painted Hall survive (mostly are pen, ink and wash on paper but there is a beautiful oil on canvas sketch at the V&A, too). Through these we can trace the evolution of the design. Alterations and revisions in the iconography and composition were partly a result of interventions from the client, but also came about because of the unpredictable way events were unfolding in the life of the nation. For example, by the time Thornhill came to paint the upper hall the death of Queen Anne had triggered the Hanoverian succession and brought the German-speaking George I to the English throne – an event that could not have been predicted in 1707. Thornhill made much use of artistic licence when it came to depicting George’s landing at Greenwich on the north wall of the upper hall by choosing an allegorical approach that raised fewer awkward questions than a realistic representation of that event would. Artistic licence was sometimes politically expedient, too!

How did Thornhill paint the ceiling? Did he lie on his back?

From a standing or kneeling position on the type of scaffold described above. There is no evidence that English artists used the cradles adopted by Renaissance artisans; only detailed work over a small area could be done from a reclining position in any case. When restoration of the ceiling was carried out in 1958, experts were able to confirm from the nature of the painted surface that the work was carried out from a standing position with very little chance to visualise the effect from below.

What was painted first?

The lower hall ceiling was painted first; Thornhill’s earliest preparatory sketch for the central oval dates from March 1706/7 and can be found in his sketchbook which is held at the British Museum (below).

Do we know what parts were painted when?

Yes, we can trace the stages of this very lengthy project through the minutes of the hospital’s governing directors and fabric committee which are preserved at the National Archives. Thornhill won the commission in 1707 and work commenced on the lower hall first in 1708. That work was completed by 1712. Next, Thornhill produced designs for the upper hall in 1717 (although he still hadn’t been paid for his work on the lower hall!). The painting of the upper hall began in 1718. The ceiling was complete by 1722 and the north, south and east walls with their grisaille schemes by 1724. The west wall was finished by 1725 and the vestibule by 1727.

Who were Thornhill’s biggest influences?

Thornhill was heavily influenced by two foreign artists. His sketchbook (preserved at the British Museum) indicates he studied the work of the Italian-born artist Antonio Verrio (1636-1707) very closely. Verrio introduced Baroque ceiling and wall painting to England in the 1670s and was so a natural source of inspiration for the young Thornhill. Verrio died in 1707 just as Thornhill began work at Greenwich. Louis Laguerre (1663-1721) was both an influence and a competitor; he arrived in London in 1683 not long before the young James Thornhill was apprenticed. Laguerre, like Verrio, was much influenced by the artist Charles Le Brun who specialised in the particularly grandiose style of decoration found at Versailles. Laguerre worked as an assistant to Verrio before setting out on his own and winning commissions such as the chapel at Chatsworth for the 1st Duke of Devonshire. Laguerre lost the commission to paint the inside of the dome of St Paul’s to Thornhill in 1715.

In terms of native painters, Thornhill also copied from more experienced colleagues including the painter Isaac Fuller. He was apprenticed to the painter Thomas Highmore, a distant relative, for seven years through the Painter-Stainers’ Company.

References to astronomy and navigation in the Painted Hall ceiling remind us that Thornhill was active and interested in developments outside the art world, too. He appears to have had a particular interest in science and natural philosophy and became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1723.

What would the scaffolding have looked like when the Hall was painted? Was it a wooden scaffolding?

The scaffolding used by decorative craftsmen in the early eighteenth century was wooden and differed very little from that used in medieval times (it was not until the nineteenth century that adjustable and revolving scaffolds were introduced). The kind of scaffold Thornhill and his team would have worked from was a series of upright wooden piles supporting horizontal timbers (ledgers) fixed at about 3 or 4ft from the walls, these carried ‘putlocks’ on which planks were fixed for the passage of craftsmen. Lashings of rope were required to secure the structure. Diagonally placed poles were sometimes used to act as bracing.

Scaffolding was expensive to acquire and was sometimes passed on between generations of the same family. The Painted Hall scaffold was provided in 1707 by the mason-contractor Edward Strong (1676–1741). Strong and Thornhill were evidently good friends since they made a tour of the Low Countries together in 1711 as work on the lower hall ceiling was nearing completion.

You can find a depiction of the kind of scaffolding Thornhill’s team would have worked from on Caius Gabriel Cibber’s carved relief on the west dado of the Monument (1673-75), a detail of which is shown below.

How many people helped work in the Painted Hall? / Who were the people who helped Thornhill? 

The Painted Hall is a vast scheme which, although the product of one man’s imagination as a design, was created by a large cast of decorative painters and other craftsmen. Important names include the mason-contractor Edward Strong, mentioned above, who provided the scaffolding from which the Hall was painted, the plasterer Henry Doogood who created the fine surfaces onto which Thornhill’s designs were painted, the artist Dietrich Ernst André, who painted the royal party on the west wall, and Robert Jones who carved the arms of William and Mary in stone over the arch at the upper end of the Hall. It is important to remember that the creation of the entire Hospital, as well as the painted scheme that adorned its Hall, was an essentially collaborative project.

What parts did James Thornhill paint?

It is not possible to establish precisely which parts were painted by Thornhill himself but, as a general rule, he became less directly involved as the scheme progressed because as his career developed, he was often working on several projects in parallel all over the country. We know Thornhill painted the majority of the upper hall ceiling himself, for example, but that the royal party on the west wall was painted by the Polish artist Dietrich Ernst André (it is this change of hand that accounts for the abrupt contrast between the larger-than-life allegorical figures and the life-size royal family).

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