1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Thornhill, Sir James
THORNHILL, SIR JAMES (1676–1734), English historical painter, was born at Melcombe Regis, Dorset, in 1676, of an ancient but impoverished county family. His father died while he was young, but he was befriended by his maternal uncle, the celebrated Dr Sydenham, and apprenticed to Thomas Highmore, serjeant-painter to King William III., a connexion of the Thornhill family. Little is known regarding his early career. About 1715 he visited Holland, Flanders and France; and, having obtained the patronage of Queen Anne, he was in 1719–1720 appointed her serjeant-painter in succession to Highmore, and was ordered to decorate the interior of the dome of St Paul's with a series of eight designs, in chiaroscuro heightened with gold, illustrative of the life of that apostle—a commission for which Louis Laguerre had previously been selected by the commissioners for the repair of the cathedral. He also designed and decorated the saloon and hall of Moor Park, Herts, and painted the great hall at Blenheim, the princesses' apartments at Hampton Court, the hall and staircase of the South Sea Company, the chapel at Wimpole, the staircase at Easton-Neston, Northamptonshire, and the hall at Greenwich Hospital, usually considered his most important and successful work, upon which he was engaged from 1708 to 1727. Among his easel pictures are the altar-pieces of All Souls and Queen's College chapels, Oxford, and that in Melcombe Regis church; and he executed such portrait subjects as that of Sir Isaac Newton, in Trinity College, Cambridge, and the picture of the House of Commons in 1730, in the possession of the earl of Hardwicke, in which he was assisted by Hogarth, who married Jane, his only daughter. He also produced a few etchings in a slight and sketchy but effective manner, and executed careful full-size copies of Raphael's cartoons, which now belong to the Royal Academy. About 1724 he drew up a proposal for the establishment of a royal academy of the arts, and his scheme had the support of the lord treasurer Halifax, but government declined to furnish the needful funds. Thornhill then opened a drawing-school in his own house in James Street, Covent Garden, where instruction continued to be given till the time of his death. He acquired a considerable fortune by his art, and was enabled to repurchase his family estate of Thornhill, Dorsetshire. In 1715 he was knighted by George I., and in 1719 he represented Melcombe Regis in parliament, a borough for which Sir Christopher Wren had previously been member. Having been removed from his office by some court intrigue, and suffering from broken health and repeated attacks of gout, he retired to his country seat, where he died on the 4th of May 1734. His son James, also an artist, succeeded his father as serjeant-painter to George II. and was appointed “painter to the navy.”
The high contemporary estimate of Sir James Thornhill's works has not since been confirmed; in spite of Dr Young, “late times” do not
How Raphael's pencil lives in Thornhill's hands.”
He is weak in drawing — indeed, when dealing with complicated figures he was assisted by Thomas Gibson; and, ignorant of the great monumental art of Italy, he formed himself upon the lower model of Le Brun.