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James Thornhill

Birthdate: (58)
Death: May 04, 1734 (58)
Immediate Family:

Son of Walter Thornhill and Mary Sydenham
Husband of Judith Thornhill
Father of Jane Hogarth and John Thornhill

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Immediate Family

About James Thornhill

Sir James Thornhill (25 July 1675 or 1676 – 4 May 1734) was an English painter of historical subjects, in the Italian baroque tradition.


James Thornhill was born in Melcombe Regis. He was 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. Young James also learned much from Antonio Verrio (1639?–1707) and Louis Laguerre (1663–1721), prominent foreign decorative painters then working in England. In 1696 he completed his apprenticeship and in March 1704 became a Freeman of the Painter-Stainers’ Company of London. From 1707 on, Thornhill successfully worked for the upper class as a history painter.

Thornhill decorated palace interiors with large-scale compositions. The figures of these wall paintings are commonly shown in idealized and rhetorical postures. In 1711, Thornhill was one of the 12 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 was soon closed.

In 1707 Thornhill was given the commission to decorate the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital (1707–1727) by "a whig, low-church dominated committee inspired by a moral Anglican nationalism". In June 1715 (in which year work on the upper hall began) 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". The allegorical wall and ceiling decorations of the Painted Hall depict the Protestant succession of English monarchs from William and Mary to George I.

In June 1718 George I made Thornhill court painter, and in March 1720 Serjeant Painter. On 2 May 1720, the king knighted him, the first native artist to be knighted. In the same year, he was master of the Painters' Company and in 1723 fellow of the Royal Society. In October 1720, Louis Cheron and John Vanderbank opened another academy in an old Presbyterian meeting house in St. Martin's Lane, which survived a few years. One of the subscribers was William Hogarth

From 1722 to 1734 Thornhill was also a member of Parliament for Melcombe Regis..

His last major commission was to paint the chapel at Wimpole Hall, he started work on the preliminary sketches in 1713 and the work was finished by 1724, the north wall has fictive architecture and four statues all in Trompe-l'œil of the four Doctors of the Church: St. Gregory, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine & St. Jerome. The east wall above the altar is painted with the Adoration of the Magi.

In November 1724, Thornhill made a second attempt to establish a new free academy in his private house at Covent Garden. This was more successful, and Hogarth must have been a member from the beginning. On 23 March 1729, Hogarth married Sir James' daughter Jane, indicating the depth of their relationship.

Important works

A major example of Thornhill's work are the eight scenes executed in grisaille from the Life of St. Paul in the cupola of St Paul's Cathedral (1716–19). In Dorset, his birthplace, Thornhill decorated the reredos at St. Mary's Church, Weymouth, with a picture of the Last Supper.

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 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.

At Hanbury Hall, beneath an imposing view of the Olympian Gods, dominating the ceiling of the main staircase, Thornhill shows Rev Henry Sacheverell, a Tory propagandist put on trial for sedition by the Whig government in 1710, being cast to the Furies. 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. Thornhill was also a notable portraitist.

In 1718 Sir James took a large house on Covent Garden Piazza, and in 1725 he built Thornhill House in the south of Stalbridge, near Sturminster Newton, Dorset. He probably designed this house himself in the Palladian manner.

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

By the end of his life Thornhill was receiving no major commissions. So he began to copy the Raphael Cartoons 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 his death left this work unfinished. The original small wash designs of details of the Raphael Cartoons are now kept in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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James Thornhill's Timeline

July 25, 1675
Age 24
Age 33
May 4, 1734
Age 58