Dorset Magazine

In the Footsteps of.....
James Thornhill.

The Dorset-born artist, Sir James Thornhill, made it to the top of his profession in the early 1700s, and in so doing rubbed shoulders with many of the important figures of the period. Stephen Swann looks back at this largely forgotten artist’s illustrious career

It wasn’t easy being an artist in the early years of the 18th century; commissions were limited and came largely from the court and those wealthy enough to own big country houses - portraits were the main source of work for artists, followed by ‘historical’ paintings and scenes from the classics and the Bible. As for landscape painting, that was still regarded as an unworthy subject for the artist. It was to be another 60 or 70 years before it came to prominence. Not only was work limited, it was largely in the hands of painters from Europe, where, it has to be said, talent was thicker on the ground and opportunities to train were greater.

It was into this artistic milieu that a son of Dorset, James Thornhill, made it big - so big, in fact, that in 1721 he became the first English-born artist to be knighted. But this is to jump into Thornhill’s life at its high point, we should return to Dorset to begin his story, and to Stalbridge in the north of the county, more precisely the tithing manor of Thornhill, a hamlet in the artist’s day but now a part of the larger town.

The earliest recorded Thornhill as lord of the manor dates from the reign of Richard II. The family held the manor until the late 17th century when Robert Thornhill sold his pedigree to Sir William Pysent. However, James’ chance of an inheritance were nil, whatever the case, since his father was the eighth son of 16 and had left to become a wholesale grocer. And so James Thornhill came into this world in 1675, the son of Walter Thornhill of Wareham and Mary, eldest daughter of Colonel William Sydenham, governor of Weymouth. As to his exact birthplace, that remains open to question as sources give the location as what is now the White Hart Hotel, Weymouth or Woolland. Nor is it likely that James ever really knew his father because he probably abandoned his wife and children quite early on, leaving James to be brought up by his uncle, Thomas Sydenham, in London.

The young James must have shown a penchant for drawing and painting, for in 1689, at the age of 14, he was apprenticed to Thomas Highmore (1660-1720), a distant relative and specialist in non-figurative decorative painting which also included wainscots, balustrades and trompe l’oeil effects! Nor did James have to wait long before finding himself in the thick of things, for the 1690s saw him working with Highmore at Chatsworth, where he was able to see the work of men like Laguere, Cheron and Verrio, all of whom exerted a considerable influence on him.

In 1696 the young artist completed his apprenticeship and in March 1704 became a Freeman of the Painter-Stainers’ Company of London. Three years later Thornhill began work at the Royal Navy Hospital (now College) at Greenwich, a commission that was to occupy him, on and off, for some 19 years and which was to see him produce what is arguably his greatest work. And what work it was. Thornhill and his ‘studio’ painted two huge ceilings and five murals that celebrate the Protestant succession of English monarchs from William and Mary to George I. The first area tackled was the Painted Hall, an area of around 108 feet by 50 feet, which took from 1708-1712 to complete, and which shows a stunning illusionistic view of the heavens with the patrons of the hospital, William and Mary, enthroned and surrounded by allegorical figures and maritime trophies. This, the finest example of allegorical Baroque decorative painting by an English artist earnt Thornhill £3 per square yard for the ceiling and a £1 for the walls - and a knighthood. The entire commission netted him over £6,000 - this at a time when a farm worker would earn only a third of that sum for an entire lifetime’s labour. The period 1718-24 saw him working on the smaller Upper Hall where he painted a ceiling glorifying Queen Anne and five wall paintings honouring George I and the House of Hanover, whilst 1727 found him working in the entrance vestibule on murals and the cupola.

The artist from Dorset must have been a man of considerable energies, for whilst all this was going forward at Greenwich he fought off competition from two Italian masters, Ricci and Pellegrini, to secure the interior of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and there, between 1714-1717, he painted scenes in grisaille from the life of St Paul. A story has it that the work at the cathedral almost cost Thornhill his life, for as he stepped backwards on a narrow platform to inspect a passage of painting he would have fallen to the nave below had not an assistant, seeing his peril, splashed paint on the work thus causing his mentor to jump forward!

Successful as he was, Thornhill did not have everything his own way and nor, it seems, did his energies exhaust themselves that easily. In 1722 he contracted to work at Kensington Palace, but his price was too high and he was undercut by the rising William Kent. He painted scenes for Drury Lane Theatre, did illustrations for books and worked as an architect, though the only building that can be fully attributed to him is Moor Park, Hertfordshire. He even prepared designs for the new town hall at Blandford! And as if all this were not enough, he found time to do the occasional portraits - Sir Isaac Newton and the playwright Sir Richard Steele being among the famous who sat for him.

Alongside his artistic work, Thornhill was active in establishing the earliest art academies in England and was one of the 12 original directors of Sir Godfrey Kneller’s academy at Great Queen Street in 1711. Indeed, he succeeded Kneller as Governor there in 1716 and held the post until 1720. Thornhill also established his own drawing school at Covent Garden - and it was here that William Hogarth was to study and not only that, was to come to play an important part in Thornhill’s family life.

As a student the young Hogarth paid his master two guineas a term and held Sir James in something like awe, not only for his standing in the art world, but because Thornhill had a young and handsome daughter, Jane. Hogarth was something of a Jack the Lad and preferred painting the ordinary folk on the streets, something that was eventually to earn him fame and fortune, but at this stage Thornhill saw the young man’s interest in his daughter as a means to ‘leap up the ladder’. As it was, William and Jane were married on 23rd March 1729 at Old Paddington Church and were promptly cold-shouldered by Thornhill, who thought that his low-born protegé had betrayed the trust he had bestowed on him. However, the story goes that the need to earn money spurred Hogarth to paint ‘The Harlot’s Progress’ series, and that Lady Thornhill urged her daughter to leave the newly finished pictures where her father might come upon them. This Jane did, and it is said that when her father saw them he said: ‘Very well, the man who can furnish representations like these can also maintain a wife without a portion.’

Thornhill received no further major commissions after Moor Park in 1728 - the Baroque style was already somewhat passé and a new generation of painters was beginning to find fashion. Not that it mattered much - Sir James Thornhill’s career had earned him great wealth and many honours. As well as his knighthood he had been elected FRS in 1723, a rare thing for a painter and between 1722-1734 he had represented Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in Parliament. Not only that, but he had grown wealthy enough to buy back the family estate at Thornhill, something that must have given this son of a wholesale grocer more satisfaction than anything. As for the artist’s tenure as MP for Weymouth, it is doubtful if the great artist even spoke in the House of Commons in all his 12 years there. His lasting legacy to the town is, in any case, more important, for at St Mary’s Church in Weymouth can be seen his painting of ‘The Last Supper’ - this picture is something the town should be proud of, for in Sir James Thornhill it can boast a very important figure in the history of English art. He is an artist whose work can stand comparison with that in the same field by the Old Masters themselves.

This article was taken from the December 1999 issue of Dorset Magazine.