Exhibition catalogue text
SIR JAMES THORNHILL
3 A Ceiling and Wall Decoration c.1715-25
Pen and brown ink and brown washes over pencil on laid paper 31.1 x 39.1 (12 1/4 x 15 3/8)
Thornhill was the most important native-born baroque decorative painter of the early eighteenth century, competing in a field which had been dominated previously by foreign artists trained in the Continental tradition, such as Antonio Verrio (?1639-1707) and Louis Laguerre (1663-1721). From 1711 to 1727 he worked on his most successful and imposing interior scheme, the Painted Hall at Greenwich, which survives today as a masterpiece of the baroque style in England. George I recognised his achievements and status in the artistic community by appointing him History Painter to the King in 1718, Serjeant-Painter in 1720, and in May of the same year knighted him.
Thornhill is at his most creative and inventive as a draughtsman. A large number of sketches and preliminary studies by him survive, which illustrate vividly his working procedure in the evolution of his schemes. In the first stages of their conception Thornhill would make rapid pen or pencil drawings, choosing and rejecting subject-matter and compositions as he went. As the design progressed, the drawings become more detailed and finished, and the compositions more decided, resulting finally in an oil sketch. This highly finished design for a staircase, painted with grand mythological scenes - the Birth of Venus in the centre, Neptune in his chariot to the left, and an Assembly of the Gods on the ceiling above - although formerly catalogued simply as an unknown wall and ceiling decoration, in fact appears to be a preliminary drawing for the oil sketch of the same subject, minus Neptune, at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Fig.12). However, even at this late stage Thornhill was changing his mind about various elements, deciding not to ink in the pencilled putti to the left of Neptune.
The oil sketch, along with two others thought to be alternative designs for the same space, have been identified in the past with Thornhill's designs for the staircase at Canons, Middlesex, the celebrated country mansion of James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos (a pencil drawing for one of them, depicting Dido and Aeneas, is inscribed 'D.Chand. at Canons' - see Croft-Murray 1962, p.266; Simon 1974, no.46). Begun in 1715 but pulled down within only thirty-five years, the best architects, craftsmen and interior decorators were employed in the design of the house. According to records Thornhill was responsible for painting the main staircase and the saloon, although the subject-matter is not specified.
This association with Canons is not a certainty, however. The dimensions of the design, particularly the square ceiling, do not tally with the narrow, rectangular space occupied by the staircase on floor plans of the house (Huntington Library, California, reproduced in Dunlop, 1949, p.1952). Thornhill habitually re-employed similar designs with minor alterations for different locations. The same compositional format - a mythological scene framed by double or single Corinthian or composite columns, with coffering above - was used by him frequently, for instance for the staircase at Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire.
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Opp_ Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.42 no.3, reproduced in colour p.43