Artist profile – Sir James Thornhill


Sir James Thornhill is a lesser-known painter today, eclipsed by his son-in-law and pupil, 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 earned him a fortune, a knighthood, and widespread renown as the 'greatest history painter this Kingdom ever produced.'

His childhood was disrupted. He had been born into a minor landed family in Dorset (1675/1676), but his father worked up massive debts and fled to New England, leaving Thornhill with his great-uncle in London. Luckily, however, 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 (a highly prestigious position) to William III.

By 1707, Thornhill was an up-and-coming painter, and had worked on Royal Commissions. But his commission for the Painted Hall of the new Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich was beyond his wildest dreams. The project would take him 20 years, define his career and bring him to pre-eminence on the English artistic scene.

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’. The upper hall, too, was met with widespread acclaim, this time in particular by the new monarch, George I. The gilded arch for which we are crowdfunding represented a shimmering centrepiece to this composition, framing the triumphant arrival of George in Britain – titled 'the Golden Age Return’d' – on the West Wall.

Payment for the work, however, was scarce; by 1717 Thornhill had received only £635 – it was only after Nicholas Hawksmoor, the clerk of the works at Greenwich, gave a favourable review of the work that the governors agreed to pay him. That Thornhill refused to remove the scaffolding in the hall probably also helped!

The Painted Hall catapulted Thornhill to artistic fame, earning him more commissions including the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, the chapel ceiling of Queen’s College Oxford and the hall of Blenheim Palace. 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. 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. Help us to bring back the shine to this piece of British history and make art happen!

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