The Portal Archive May 2013 - Page 7

THE P RTAL May 2013 Page 7 James Thornhill Anglican Luminary by Fr Keith Robinson James Thornhill was born in 1675 at Melcombe Regis in Dorset into a “family of fortune dissipated by the extravagance of his own father”. At an early age he was sent to a relative in London who, recognising some artistic ability, placed him to be trained with the King’s Sergeant-Painter (also a distant relative). In fact young James soon proved to be so gifted an artist that he was encouraged to explore the exciting innovations taking place in southern Europe; in particular the way in which both private and public buildings were being decorated with schemes of illusionistic painting. This was a revolutionary development in European art, which amazes and impresses us even today. the Painted Hall at Greenwich The most wealthy and fashionable among the British elite brought the Neapolitan Verrio to decorate their mansions in this new style. He was soon followed by the Frenchman Louis Laguerre who worked in the same flamboyant manner. references to his wealthy patrons, who frequently appeared within them. This was the case, of course, throughout Europe at the time. Yet Thornhill has a small but significant catalogue of religious work to his credit. Apart from St Paul’s, he decorated the Earl of Oxford’s new chapel at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire with an Adoration of the Magi and life- size Doctors of the Church. On his return to England, James, already inspired by what He contributed a Last Supper he had seen in Italy, was greatly reredos to his parish church in influenced by these two men, Weymouth. The Tate Gallery for whom there was almost too possesses two different sketches much work available. Thornhill soon rivalled Laguerre, and Queen Anne employed for reredoses of the Adoration of the Magi, and the him to decorate several of the royal palaces. Much has V&A possesses two different sketches for circular been lost, but one of his greatest surviving schemes is ceiling paintings of the Ascension of Christ. the Painted Hall at Greenwich. He worked on this for Very surprisingly, Thornhill was also commissioned almost twenty years. to design the great west window of Westminster Abbey the dome of the new St Paul’s with the Patriarchs and fourteen prophets, and the But Thornhill is probably best known today for one north rose window of the Abbey with sixteen apostles of his religious works, the decoration of the interior of and evangelists (unfortunately disfigured in the 19 th the dome of the new St Paul’s Cathedral. This is still the century). Their brilliant colours can be appreciated largest single decorative scheme anywhere in Britain. today. The commission stipulated that all eight scenes of the Story of St Paul must come from the Acts of the Apostles, and that they must be in monochrome, simulating sculpture. We should remember that there were no precedents for decorating a Protestant cathedral. Thornhill took great trouble to study the texts, and imaginatively, but faithfully interpret his sources. a small but significant catalogue of religious work subject-matter is restrained No Englishman had ever done anything quite like it. Indeed, he was the first English artist to be knighted (in 1720). And even if the subject-matter is restrained and carefully considered, we surely see a new attitude to figurative art within the Church of England, interpreted with some of the vigour and imagination of counter-reformation Europe. Thornhill died at his home in Dorset on the 13 May 1734, survived by his wife Judith, and his son Most of his commissions were of a frankly secular and daughter, who had married the artist William character, generally mythical subjects with allegorical Hogarth.