Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thornhill, James
THORNHILL, Sir JAMES (1675–1734), painter, born in 1675 at Melcombe Regis, Dorset, was son of Walter Thornhill of Wareham, the eighth son of George Thornhill (or Thornhull) of Thornhill and Woolland in the same county. His mother was Mary, eldest daughter of Colonel William Sydenham, governor of Weymouth [q. v.], and niece of the famous physician, Thomas Sydenham [q. v.] His father, having dissipated his estate by extravagance, sent Thornhill as a boy to his great-uncle, Dr. Sydenham, in London, who placed him as pupil with Thomas Highmore [q. v.], the king's serjeant-painter, a Dorsetshire man and relative of the family. Thornhill was very industrious and made great progress in his art, so that he found himself able to travel on the continent and study the works of the Carracci, Nicolas Poussin, and other painters then in high repute. By them he was greatly influenced in his art, and he commenced to form a choice collection of their works.
At this time in England the spacious saloons and staircases of the mansions erected by Wren, Vanbrugh, and other architects in the Italian style, afforded a great scope for the art of the decorative painter. Verrio had been brought over from Italy, and Laguerre had succeeded him. Thornhill on his return to England quickly found employment in the same branch of art, and became a rival of Laguerre. He attracted the notice of Queen Anne, who employed him on several important works in the royal palaces at Hampton Court, Greenwich, and Windsor. After the completion of the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral it was decided, against the design and wish of Sir Christopher Wren, to decorate the interior of the dome with paintings, and Thornhill, being in high favour at the time, obtained the commission. He designed for this purpose eight scenes from the life of St. Paul, which he executed in monochrome. These paintings, though in themselves not wanting in grandeur of conception or dignity of design, proved from the outset quite inefficient, owing to the enormous height of the dome and the thickness of the intervening atmosphere. Some of Thornhill's original sketches for this series are in the British Museum, together with other more finished drawings, probably executed by Thornhill for the purpose of a set of engravings which were published soon after. A series of eight finished designs, prepared by the artist to be submitted to Queen Anne, was purchased in 1779 by the dean and chapter of St. Paul's. While Thornhill was painting in the dome his life was saved by the timely presence of mind shown by his assistant, Bently French. Repeated restorations have destroyed anything of interest which remained in Thornhill's work.
Thornhill's paintings in Greenwich Hospital are the most generally familiar among his works. He was engaged on them for about twenty years. Thornhill's services were in great requisition for the decoration of the houses of the nobility and gentry. Blenheim, Easton Neston, Wimpole, Chatsworth, Eastwell, and other well-known mansions contained decorative paintings by him. Comparatively few remain, their destruction being due to neglect and change of fashion rather than to any fault in Thornhill's painting, for his technical method of mural painting possessed great durability and merit. This is especially shown in the fine series of paintings executed by Thornhill for Thomas Foley at Stoke Edith, near Hereford, where he adorned the staircases and saloon with the stories of Cupid and Psyche, and of Niobe, and in one architectural piece added full-length portraits of his patron and himself. At Oxford, where native art at this date was greatly patronised, Thornhill executed paintings at All Souls', Queen's, and New Colleges, but his works have for the most part been destroyed or superseded. His sketch-books, one of which is in the British Museum, show him to have been an industrious and capable artist, with considerable inventive powers, although to suit the conventions of fashion he appears to have kept a kind of register of allegorical and mythological subjects suitable for the various walls or ceilings which he might at any time be called upon to decorate. A sketch-book, with drawings made by Thornhill at Harwich and on the continent, is in the possession of Felix Cobbold, esq., at Ipswich. Thornhill was a capable portrait-painter, and among his sitters were Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Richard Steele, Dr. Bentley, and other famous men.
Thornhill was one of the pioneers of a national school of art. He submitted to the government a scheme for the foundation of a royal academy of painting, to be situated at the upper end of the Mews (near the present National Gallery). Although this scheme obtained the approval of Charles Montagu, earl of Halifax [q. v.], not even that nobleman's influence at the treasury was able to secure its realisation. In 1711 when an academy of painting was opened in Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, with Sir Godfrey Kneller as governor, Thornhill was one of the twelve original directors elected by ballot. A few years later factions arose in the academy, which led to the secession of one group of artists under Thornhill, who started a new academy at a house in James Street, Covent Garden, close to his own house in the Piazza, to which he had removed from his original residence at 75 Dean Street, Soho. Another group of artists, under Cheron and Vanderbank, established a rival academy in St. Martin's Lane. Admission to Thornhill's academy was by ticket, but William Hogarth [q. v.], who attended it, says that it met with little success and was soon closed. In 1724 Thornhill reopened it, but apparently again without success. After Thornhill's death the furniture of this academy was acquired by Hogarth for use in the newly constituted academy in St. Martin's Lane. Thornhill succeeded Highmore as serjeant-painter to the king in March 1719–20, and was knighted in the following April, being the first native artist to receive that honour. Although Thornhill frequently complained of the scale of pay for his paintings, he amassed sufficient wealth to be able to repurchase the old seat of his family at Thornhill in Dorset. He sat from 1722 to 1734 as member of parliament for Melcombe Regis, to the church of which he presented an altar-piece of his own painting, representing ‘The Last Supper.’
Thornhill died at his seat at Thornhill on 13 May 1734. By his wife Judith he had one son, John Thornhill, who succeeded his father as serjeant-painter shortly before his death, but was otherwise of little note; and one daughter, Jane, who was clandestinely married to William Hogarth at Old Paddington church on 23 March 1729. Lady Thornhill survived her husband, and appears to have resided with the Hogarths at Chiswick, where she died on 12 Nov. 1757, aged 84, and was buried in Chiswick church. A picture, executed jointly by Thornhill and Hogarth, representing the House of Commons in session, with Sir Robert Walpole and Speaker Onslow, is in the possession of the Earl of Onslow. Having obtained, through the favour of the Earl of Halifax, the commission to paint the ceiling of the queen's state bedroom at Hampton Court, Thornhill obtained through the same agency special permission to make copies of Raphael's cartoons. He completed two sets, the larger of which now belongs to the Royal Academy and the smaller to Christ Church, Oxford. They had been purchased by the Duke of Bedford at the sale of Thornhill's collections which took place about a year after his death.
Thornhill frequently introduced his own portrait into his decorative paintings, as at Stoke Edith. His son-in-law Hogarth painted more than one portrait of Thornhill and his family, singly or in conversation. A portrait by Joseph Highmore, painted in 1732, was engraved in mezzotint by John Faber, junior. Two portraits drawn by Jonathan Richardson, senior, in the last year of Thornhill's life are in the print-room at the British Museum.
[Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting, ed. Wornum; Vertue's Manuscript Diaries (Brit. Mus. Addit. MSS. 23068 &c. passim); Hutchins's Dorset, 1863, ii. 463; Cunningham's British Painters; Nichols's Anecdotes of Hogarth; Austin Dobson's Hogarth (2nd ed. 1898); Law's Hampton Court; Freethinker, 1742, i. 170, iii. 69; Dugdale's History of St. Paul's Cathedral (Ellis's edition, 1816); Gent. Mag. 1734, p. 274.]