Sir James Thornhill

Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan


Not on display

Sir James Thornhill 1675 or 76–1734
Oil paint on wood
Support: 489 × 498 mm
frame: 735 × 765 × 97 mm
Purchased 1965

Display caption

This oil sketch depicts a scene from the Trojan wars as described in Homer’s Iliad. The nymph Thetis has persuaded Vulcan, the blacksmith of the gods, to make a set of impregnable armour for her son Achilles.This was probably a design for the decoration of the staircase at Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire. Towards the end of the seventeenth century it had become fashionable to paint the walls and ceilings of important buildings with historical or mythological scenes. Thornhill was the first major British artist to gain favour for painting in this highly ornate Baroque style.

Gallery label, May 2007

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Catalogue entry

T00814 Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan c. 1710

Oil 489×498 (19 1/4×19 5/8) on wood 498×515 (19 1/4×20 1/4)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1965

PROVENANCE ...; G. Maione 1965; his daughter Miss P. Maione, sold Christic's 10 December 1965 (89 as ‘Aeneas Receiving Arms from Venus’ by Pellegrini) bt Butlin for Lawrence Gowing; sold by him to the Tate Gallery
LITERATURE Jacob Simon, English Baroque Sketches, exh. cat. Marble Hill, Twickenham 1974, no pagination, under no.30

The subject of this panel, which may have been originally intended for the decoration of a coach, is somewhat ambiguous. Thornhill's sketchbook in the British Museum (accession no.1884-7-26-40, p.23 recto) includes an upright design which shares certain compositional details with T00814 and is inscribed ‘Vulc. presng to Venus Aenss.Armour’. In this drawing Vulcan is shown fully dressed in cap and working clothes, with a hammer at his belt. As the figure in the Tate Gallery panel is more in keeping with the representation of a hero, the painting was formerly entitled ‘Venus Giving Arms to Aeneas’. This however begs the question as to why Aeneas should be shown in a veritable storehouse of armour, with an attendant equipped with a hammer at his heels. It could equally well be a more heroic rendering of Vulcan, and the ‘cuts’ across his leg below the knee might be intended to represent his lameness. Vulcan's forge was usually sited underground, and the scene here is set in the mouth of a cavern in which the Cyclops are seen at work in the distance. The nude female figure on a cloud surrounded by putti would indeed at first sight suggest a goddess of the first rank, like Venus, except that it is known that Thornhill depicted the mother of Achilles, the nereid Thetis, in similar fashion (see T01551). Moreover, the pearl, coral and possibly seaweed ornaments in her hair accord well with the representation of a sea-nymph, and there is a hint of stormy waves in the bottom right background. The description of the sumptuous gold and silver shield made for Achilles is one of the set-pieces of the Iliad, and accords well with the object held aloft here. On balance, the closeness of the design to the Hanbury Hall decorations makes its identification with the story of Achilles preferable to that of Aeneas.

The coat of arms on a shield in the bottom right-hand corner has not been identified, and anyway seems to have been altered at least once.

The panel originally had a pointed top, and was made up to its present square shape by the addition of two triangular pieces of panel, approximately 126×248×279 (5×9 3/4×11), to the top corners. These added sections are painted over, but are hidden by the present frame.

Published in:
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988

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