Sir James Thornhill

1675/6? – 1734

James Thornhill, in accepting Wren’s commission to decorate The Painted Hall, made one fundamental mistake. He agreed to be paid after the mural was finished. In all fairness, he probably didn’t imagine that it was going to take 19 years and had his eye on a little more than money at the time (as well as seeing the job as a superb advert for his skills, he fancied a knighthood and a life in politics.)

Thornhill wasn’t a Greenwich guy by birth – he came from gentle stock – albeit impoverished. He got himself apprenticed to Thomas Highmore, who did fancy paintings in toff’s houses across the land. He proved an apt pupil, and got a fair amount of work on graduating, but needed a special job that would act as a calling card for even more splendid commissions. The Painted Hall seemed the perfect opportunity to show off. He just hadn’t counted on how long it would take.

The allegories and allusions that litter the ceiling and walls of the Painted Hall deserve a separate entry on another day, but suffice to say that it is absolutely chock-a-block with stuff going on – stuff which meant much more to an 18th Century viewer than it does to us today. He had taken this job as a way to display how good he was at painting portraits – and he certainly got a lot of practice. The Royal Family kept changing and he had to repaint sections, and since he was being paid at the end, he received no recompense for continually repainting the various Kings, queens and sundry royal hangers-ons’ likenesses.

The job got out of hand in virtually every respect. The hall, originally intended as a mess room for the elderly sea dogs was covered in scaffolding and paint pots, so the pensioners had to eat downstairs in the undercroft. (They never returned, because when Thornhill finished it was deemed too posh for the likes of them, and just became a tourist attraction, where the old boys earned a few coppers by showing visitors around.)

Thornhill had his fun, with a few allegorical gags but things were really dragging on. It didn’t help that various contemporaries who could have been more charitable were, frankly, sniffy about him. Sir John Vanbrugh, who was, to be honest, in a bit of a Glass house himself, thought it would be “a pleasant joke” when Thornhill, a mere “painter” applied to become Royal Architect at Greenwich. He clearly thought a playwright would be better qualified – and, of course, he was right…

In 1718, as a bit of a sop, presumably, King George I appointed him court painter, promoting him to Sergeant Painter two years later, when he also knighted him. It was the least he could do, considering how he was going to shaft the guy when he actually finished. There was a great deal of grumpiness over the bill when Thornhill’s work finally came to an end.

I’m not sure how much of an insult it was to treat him as a posh painter and decorator in the end, instead of paying him as an allegorical historical artist, but it must have stung like crazy to have his life’s work divvied up by the yard – three quid for the ceiling and a mere pound for the walls.

Luckily, by this point he wasn’t desperate for the cash, having gone into politics in the meanwhile, and he was still able to build a rather sweet palladian country pile at Stalbridge in Dorset. He set up his own art academy where one of his saucier students, William Hogarth met and married Thornhill’s daughter. Thornhill is part of Hogarth’s parliamentary group ‘The Goals Committee of the House of Commons.’

Nearer the end of his life he didn’t have any commissions (presumably being out of the loop for 19 years didn’t help much)so he set himself to copying the Rapheal Cartoons at Hampton Court. He managed a lot, but slowness still bugged him and he never completed them.


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