Thornhill, Sir James

, an eminent English painter, was born in 1676. He was the son of a gentleman of an ancient family ‘and estate in Dorsetshire but the father’s imprudent conduct having reduced him to sell his estate, the son was uno’er the necessity of seeking for a profession which might support him. He came to London, where the famous physician, Sydenham, who was his uncle, supplied him with the necessary assistances for studying under a middling painter. Such a master, however, doing but little for him, he was driven to trust to his own judgment and application; and having naturally genius and taste, he made, by the strength of these, a surprising progress in the art of painting. He travelled through Holland and Flanders, whence he went into France, and there bought several good pictures; among others, a Virgin, of Annibal Carrache, and the history of Tancred, by Poussin. If he had seen Italy, his works would have had more delicacy and correctness. His only view in travelling seemed to be acquiring a knowledge of the tastes of different nations, and buying up good pictures, in which he was very curious. Thornhill’s merit soon spread his character, and raised his reputation to the greatest height. Queen Anne appointed him to paint, in the dome of St. Paul’s church, the history of that saint, which he executed in a grand and beautiful manner, on eight pannels, in two colours, relieved with told her majesty also nominated him her first historypainter. He afterwards executed several public works, particularly at Hampton-court, where he painted an apartment, in which the queen and prince George of Denmark her husband are represented allegorically; as also another piece painted entirely on the wall, where the same subject is treated in a different manner. The other parts of the paintings there are done by Antonio Verrio, a Neapolitan. He painted also in the chapel at All Souls, Oxford, the portrait of the founder over the altar, and the cieling and figures between the windows; an altar-piece for Weyuriouth church, which was engraved by a young man, his scnolar, whom he set up in business: the hall at Blenheim, tke chapel at lord Oxford’s, at Wimple, in Cambridgeshire, the saloon and other things for Mr. Styles, the then owner of More-park, in Hertfordshire.

These great works, having established his reputation, procured him much employment among people of quality and fortune. His master-piece is the refectory and saloon | of the sailors hospital at Greenwich. The passage to this refectory is through a vestibule, where sir James has represented, in two colours, the winds in the cupola; and, on the walls, boys who sustain pannels to receive the inscription of the names of the benefactors. The refectory is a fine gallery, very lofty, in the middle of which king William and queen Mary are allegorically represented sitting, and attended by the virtues and love, who support the sceptre; the monarch appears giving peace to Europe. The twelve signs of the zodiac surround the great oval in which he is painted; the four seasons are seen above: lastly, Apollo drawn by his four horses, making his tour through the zodiac. The painter has represented in the angles the four elements, and between the colossal figures that support the balustrade, the portraits of those able mathematicians, that have perfected the art of navigation, are painted, such as Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, and Newton. The cieling is all by his own hand; but he emploj’ed a Polander to assist him in painting the walls, which he has adorned with allegorical figures suitable to the intention of the fabric, such as Liberality, Hospitality, and Charity. The saloon above is not so beautiful as the refectory; the cieling represents queen Anne and prince George of Denmark, surrounded by heroic virtues; Neptune and his train bringing their marine presents, and the four quarters of the world presenting themselves, in various attitudes, to admire them. George I. is painted on the wall facing the entry, sitting with all his family around him. On the left hand is the landing of king William, on the right that of king George I. at Greenwich. These great works would have been certainly more esteemed if they had all been done by sir James ThornhilPs own hand; they are entirely from his designs; but one cannot help, in looking at them, criticizing their incorrectness; it may even be wished that there were fewer figures. They display, however, great judgment and knowledge in treating the allegory, talents which must necessarily produce great and rich compositions.

High as sir James’s reputation was, and laborious as his works, he wa& far from being generously rewarded for some of them, and for others he found it difficult to obtain the stipulated prices. His demands were contested at Greenwich; and though La Fosse received 2000l. for his work at Montague-house, and was allowed 500l. for his diet besides, | sir James could obtain but 40s. a square yard for the cupola of S.t. Paul’s, and, as lord Orford thinks, no more for Greenwich. He was obliged to sue Mr. Styles also for the work at More-park, but the issue was in his favour, and he not only recovered 3,500l. which Mr. Styles had agreed to pay him, but 500l. more for decorations about the house.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, sir James had acquired a considerable fortune, and he laid out part of it profitably, in buying back the estate his father had sold, and in rebuilding a beautiful house, where he used to live in summer-time. He was knighted by king George the Second; but, with great injustice, was turned out of his public employment, in company with the great sir Christopher Wren, to make room for persons of far inferior abilities: after which, to amuse himself, he continued to paint easel pictures. The ill treatment he met with was thought to have impaired his health and at last, after a year’s sickness, he died, May 4, 1734, aged fifty- eight, in the same place where he was born. By his marriage he left a son, James, whom he had procured to be appointed serjeant-painter, and painter to the navy; and a daughter, married to the celebrated Hogarth. Lady Thornhill died at Chiswick in 1757.

This painter was well made, and of an agreeable humour. He was several years in parliament, and was also chosen fellow of the royal society. He designed a great deal from, practice, with much facility of pencil. His genius, so well turned for history and allegory, was no less so for portrait, landscape, and architecture; he even practised the last science as a man of business, having built several houses. He had a fine collection of designs of great masters, which he had got together with diligence, and which did honour to his taste; these he shewed very readily to strangers, and they were sold after his death. There is a set of prints engraved after the paintings on the cupola of St. Paul’s.

By the favour of the earl of Halifax, who had procured him the work at Hampton-court, he was allowed to copy the cartoons there, on which he employed three years. He executed also a smaller set, of one-fourth part of the dimensions. Having been very accurate in noticing the defects, and the additions by Cooke who repaired them, and in examining the parts turned in to fit them to the places: and having made copious studies of the heads, hands, and feet, he intended to publish an exact account of the whole, | for the use of students, but this work never appeared. At his sale the smaller set was sold for seventy-five guineas, the larger for only 200l. a price we ought in justice to suppose was owing to the few bidders who had spaces in their houses large enough to receive them. They were purchased by the duke of Bedford, and placed in the gallery at Bedford- house, Bloomsbury-square and when that house was pulled down a few years ago, the late duke, Francis, presented them to the royal academy. 1


Biog. Brit. Supplement.—Walpole’s Anecdotes.—Hutchins’s Hiitory of Dorsetshire.