In 1689, aged 14, he was apprenticed to Thomas Highmore (1660–1720), a distant relative and specialist in non-figural decorative painting, which included trompe l'oeil effects. While working for Highmore in great houses such as Chatsworth, Derbys, in the 1690s, Thornhill was exposed to the work of foreign decorative painters.
His first major commission was in 1707 for the newly constructed Royal Naval Hospital (now College), Greenwich. For the next 19 years he worked there intermittently. Although he was thus engaged at Greenwich for most of his career, Thornhill's work there was sporadic, and he often sought other employment. He competed successfully to secure one of his most prestigious commissions: the interior of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, London. In 1715 he worked at Hampton Court Palace, near London. Although Thornhill specialised in large-scale, illusionistic wall and ceiling paintings, he occasionally worked in other fields.
Thornhill was highly successful and well rewarded in his own day. He became the first English-born artist to be knighted. His last years were spent producing copies of Raphael's cartoons, presumably for the instruction of future students.
W. Osmun: A Study of the Work of Sir James Thornhill (diss., U. London, 1950)
C. Lloyd: ‘The Decoration of the Royal Hospital, Greenwich, i: The Painted Hall', Trans. Greenwich & Lambeth Antiqua. Soc., v/1 (1957), pp. 6–14
E. Croft-Murray: Decorative Painting in England, 1537–1837, i (London, 1962), pp. 69–78, 263–74
Sketches by Thornhill in the Victoria and Albert Museum (exh. cat. by E. de N. Mayhew, London, V&A, 1967)
T. P. Hudson: ‘Moor Park, Leoni, and Sir James Thornhill', Burl. Mag., cxiii (1971), pp. 657–61
K. Fremantle, ed.: Sir James Thornhill's Sketch-book Travel Journal of 1711: A Visit to East Anglia and the Low Countries (Utrecht, 1976)
B. Allen: ‘Thornhill at Wimpole', Apollo, cxxii (1985), pp. 204–11
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