Sir James Thornhill (1675/76 - 1734)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

Sir James Thornhill was the great English exponent of baroque decorative painting, at a time when foreign artists received almost all commissions for such work.

Thornhill lived in London from an early age, and was apprenticed to the decorative painter Joseph Highmore and also made a careful study of foreign decorative painters such as Antonio Verrio and Louis Laguerre. He worked on decorative schemes at great houses such as Chatsworth and Hanbury Hall but his first major commission was a series of paintings and murals for the Royal Naval Hospital (now College) in Greenwich, of which the most important is the ceiling of its painted hall showing William III and Queen Mary surrounded by allegorical figures (1707–14).

Soon after completing the painted hall at Greenwich, Thornhill was awarded the commission to decorate the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. These two major projects established Thornhill’s reputation as the foremost decorative painter in England, which in 1718 was added to by his appointment as history painter-in-ordinary to the king, the first of several court appointments.

Thornhill’s career predated the artists’ societies which laid the ground for the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts, but as a director of the Great Queen Street Academy from 1711 he was already arguing publicly for the establishment of such an academy, and in 1724 he opened a free drawing academy in his house in Covent Garden.

In 1729 Thornhill was granted a royal warrant to make copies of Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles cartoons, then at Hampton Court Palace. Thornhill wanted his copies to be the focus of academic instruction, and in 1800 the copies were acquired by the Royal Academy, where they served precisely that purpose. Thornhill’s death in 1734 ended the epoch of grand baroque decorative painting in Britain.


Born: 1675/76

Died: 1734

Gender: Male

Works by Sir James Thornhill in the RA Collection

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Works associated with Sir James Thornhill in the RA Collection

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Associated books

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Associated archives

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