A Representation of the Liberal Arts: Ceiling Design for the State Dining Room, Grimsthorpe Castle
circa 1725-30

This oil sketch, a preliminary design for the ceiling of the State Dining Room at Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, is one of only two attributed to Sleter. The other, The Triumph of Cybele, is also related to Grimsthorpe, being a design for the ceiling of one of the two grand staircases leading from the Hall to the State Apartments on the first floor. The other staircase, decorated with Apollo and the Muses, was painted by Sir James Thornhill (1675 or 6-1734), as was the series of full-length monarchs in the Hall, but it is not known if Sleter and Thornhill were working at Grimsthorpe at the same time. Both had worked previously for James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos at his extravagant new mansion, Canons, in Middlesex, where work was probably complete by c.1725.

Sleter and Thornhill's work at Grimsthorpe is contained within the impressive east wing of the house, which was extensively remodelled by the great baroque architect, Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), for Peregrine Bertie, 2nd Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven (d.1742). Although commissioned as early as 1715, by the 1st Duke, building work did not begin until 1723, after the 1st Duke's death. After Vanbrugh's death in 1726, completion of the wing, which dragged on until 1730, was overseen by Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736). Precisely when within this time framework the painted decoration was executed is not known, although Thornhill was engaged at Moor Park, Hertfordshire in 1725-7, followed by Sleter c.1730-2.

Although painted decorative schemes within houses were often used as vehicles for expressing political messages or personal power, the ceilings at Grimsthorpe appear to follow neutral, fairly conventional, themes. Sleter's Triumph of Cybele, representative of Earth and the temporal sphere, contrasts with Thornhill's godly realm, Apollo and the Muses, on the other staircase. The latter's celebration of the arts is picked up again by Sleter in the State Dining Room where Minerva and Mercury preside over the arts and learning. Sleter's oil sketch is obviously a preliminary idea as the finished ceiling (executed on strips of canvas applied to the ceiling, not oil on plaster) in many respects differs substantially. For example, the illusion of a coved ceiling seen here, into which the godly world spills, has disappeared and the composition extends instead into lunettes added at either side. In the sketch Minerva, goddess of wisdom and the arts, and Mercury, identified with reason and learning (he taught Cupid to read), appear at the apex of the composition, surrounded by groupings representative of different aspects of knowledge and the arts. Music occupies the centre with Astronomy and/or Architecture immediately to the right and Sculpture and Painting below. The female figure on the far right, holding aloft a shining star, a rapt scholar at her feet, appears on the actual ceiling seated on the left with a winged figure, possibly History, beside her, while the star's brilliant shaft of light (divine revelation) falls onto an open book.

Sleter is first recorded in England in 1719 but his work at Grimsthorpe is possibly his earliest to survive in this country. Unlike other Venetian decorative artists working there, who pursued itinerant, international careers, Sleter remained in England until his death in 1775, aged ninety. He was buried at Mereworth, Kent.

Further reading:
Edward Croft Murray, Decorative Painting in England 1537-1837, II, 1970, pp.277-8
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters born before 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Catalogues of the Permanent Collection, II, 1988, pp.212-3

Tabitha Barber
April 2001