Sir James Thornhill

Three Studies for ‘Thetis in the Forge of Vulcan Watching the Making of Achilles’ Armour’


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In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Sir James Thornhill 1675 or 76–1734
Ink, watercolour and graphite on paper
Support: 254 × 400 mm
Purchased 1972

Catalogue entry

T01551 Three Studies for ‘Thetis in the Forge of Vulcan, Watching the Making of Achilles’ Armour' c. 1710

Pen and wash over pencil on paper 253×400 (9 15/16×15 3/4); size of each drawing from left to right 160×106 (6 1/4×4 5/16), 154×110 (6 1/16×4 5/16), 156×109 (6 1/8×4 1/4)
Inscribed ‘Iron-Rowler 2 ftt|Brass for one lock|Hinge table|Chimney piece 10 high|House Office-’ in pencil above sketch on left, presumably in Thornhill's hand
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1972
PROVENANCE ...; Major Herbert Turnor, MC, of Stoke Rochford, Lincs., by descent to his daughter Mrs R.S. McCorquodale, sold Christie's 6 June 1972 (6, repr.) bt Baskett for the Tate Gallery
EXHIBITED English Baroque Sketches, Marble Hill House, Twickenham 1974 (30)
LITERATURE W.R. Omsun, ‘A Study of the Work of Sir James Thornhill’, PhD thesis, University of London 1950; Croft-Murray 1962, p.270; Michael Gibbon, Hanbury Hall, National Trust guide 1967; J. Lees-Milne, ‘Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire’, Country Life, 11 January 1968, pp.66–9; J. Lees-Milne, English Country Houses: Baroque, 1970, pp.195–206; A.M. (ed.) Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire, National Trust guide 1979, pp.11–17

The subject is taken from Book XVIII of the Iliad, where the nereid Thetis, mother of Achilles, persuades Vulcan to make a set of impregnable armour for her son, after his old armour had been captured in battle by Hector.

Among the several related drawings of scenes from the Iliad by Thornhill in the British Museum is a more worked-out version of the right-hand sketch on the Tate Gallery sheet. It is set in an architectural frame and inscribed by Thornhill: ‘At ye request of Thetis, Vulcan makes Armour for Achilles’ (BM 1865-6-10-1330). Thornhill used this design in a squarer and less upright format for the west wall (A.M. 1979, repr. p.16) of the staircase at Hanbury Hall, Worcestershire, which he decorated for the wealthy lawyer Counsellor Thomas Vernon (1654–1721) with three large scenes and two subsidiary roundels illustrating the story of Achilles. The decorations are dated by Edward Croft-Murray to about 1710, and one would therefore assume that the sketches, including the Tate Gallery sheet, immediately pre-date Thornhill's activity at Hanbury Hall. A number of other sketches and drawings for the Hanbury scheme exist, notably at the Courtauld Institute, London, and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York (see by Jacob Simon, English Baroque Sketches, Marble Hill 1974).

The subject of the forge of Vulcan, with three Cyclops standing around an anvil with hammers raised, was well-known both in antiquity and the Renaissance. A Roman sarcophagus showing this scene was engraved as plate 66 for Pietro Bartoli's and J.P. Bellori's Admiranda Romanae antiquitatis et veteris sculpturae vestigia, 1693, a work mined by many artists for compositional ideas. Thornhill's design for Hanbury Hall has been seen in the past as a modified version of Tintoretto's painting of the same scene in the Doge's Palace, Venice (Omsun 1954, p.18). There are, however, many other versions of the subject which, while none of them identical, have a better claim to be Thornhill's prototypes, among them Tintoretto's ‘Forge of Vulcan’, now in the North Carolina Museum of Art, where the disposition of figures is closer to Thornhill's final version (North Carolina Museum of Art Bulletin, 1, 1957, no.1, pp.3–5, repr.). A widely engraved version of the subject was the now-destroyed ‘Forge of Vulcan’ by Primaticcio at' Fontainebleau, showing four instead of three figures around the anvil, but very similar in movement to Thornhill's first version. Vasari's decorations for the Sala degli Elementi in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, were also well known, and the middle sketch on the Tate sheet is close to his scene showing the Cyclops forging Jupiter's lightning. The sale of Thornhill's prints and drawings on 26 February 1735 (photocopy of cat. in Courtauld Institute, London) included many unspecified items by all these artists.

Closer to Thornhill's time, the subject was used, sometime before 1696, by Antonio Verrio in the decorations of the Heaven Room at Burghley House, and also by Louis Laguerre in the State Drawing Room at Chatsworth, painted sometime between 1689 and 1694. As Thornhill worked at Chatsworth c. 1707 (Croft-Murray 1962, p.267) this could perhaps be regarded as his most immediate source. Thornhill was greatly influenced by Laguerre, and no less than fourteen, possibly sixteen, oil sketches and designs by him were included in Thornhill's studio sale of 24–25 February 1734 (lots 72–8; catalogue published Burlington Magazine, LXXXIII, 1943, pp. 133–6). Another precedent in England is ‘Vulcan Forging the Arms of Achilles’ by Gerard Lanscroon, signed and dated 1705, on the staircase of Powis Castle. All show a strong resemblance that probably owes more to classical prototypes than to direct copying from each other.

Thornhill's treatment of the nereid Thetis departs from the classical tradition which normally shows her fully dressed and firmly attached to the ground, e.g. the Roman frescoes at Pompeii, where Vulcan shows Achilles' shield to a matronly seated Thetis. The glamorous cloud-borne female here is more reminiscent of a goddess of the first rank such as Venus, and clearly the reason why the drawing was known in the past as ‘Venus watching the forging of the arms of Aeneas’. Thornhill's inscription on the British Museum sketch, however, clearly shows which camp of the Trojan war he intended to represent.

The Tate Gallery's oil sketch, formerly known as ‘Venus Presenting Arms to Aeneas’ (T00814), seems to be related to this design.

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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