Sir James Thornhill, Paul preaching in the Areopagus

Paul preaching in the Areopagus, 1729-31

Sir James Thornhill (1675/76 - 1734)

RA Collection: Art

On free display in Collection Gallery

St. Paul stands preaching in Athens in the area where the ruling council met. He spoke against worshiping false idols represented here by the classical statue of a Greek hero, probably Achilles. The painting includes an imagined classical architectural setting with a small round temple in the background.

This painted copy was made by Thornhill between 1729 and 1731 from an original cartoon (preparatory drawing) by Raphael of Paul preaching in the Areopagus. It is one of seven full size copies of the Raphael Cartoons which were presented to the Royal Academy in 1800 by the 5th Duke of Bedford for use of students in the RA Schools.

Raphael's Cartoons

Raphael’s original cartoons were commissioned by Pope Leo X at the end of 1514, and Raphael created a series of ten cartoons between 1515 and 1516 as designs for tapestries which were hung in the Sistine Chapel (now in the Vatican Museums). There are seven remaining Raphael cartoons which depict the lives of Saints Peter and Paul and these are now hung in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, on loan from the Royal Collection.

Raphael’s cartoons were sent to Brussels to be woven into tapestries where they were cut into strips for use under the looms. In 1623 Charles, Prince of Wales, who became Charles I in 1625, purchased seven of the ten original cartoons. They were put to the same use and new sets of tapestries were woven at the Mortlake factory.

In 1691 the status of the Cartoons significantly changed when William II had the strips pieced back together by Parry Walton. They were glued onto large sheets and then stretched and hung from about 1697 as autonomous works at Hampton Court in a gallery designed specifically for them by Sir Christopher Wren. From that time the prestige of the cartoons began to surpass that of the tapestries. For English painters they became the principal models of the classical style. They were the only monumental works by Raphael to be seen outside of Rome in the first half of the 18th century and they were often engraved or copied.

The cartoons were hung at Hampton Court from 1697 to 1763. They were later moved to Windsor Castle, and then returned to Hampton Court in 1804. They were occasionally lent in the early 19th century to exhibitions at the British Institution where they became very popular with art students. From 1865 onwards they found a permanent home in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Sir James Thornhill's copies

Thornhill obtained the sign-manual permitting him to copy the cartoons in March 1729 and worked at Hampton Court until about August 1731. Thornhill made many tracings directly from Raphael’s cartoons as well as many drawings of various details.

The impetus for Thornhill spending such a significant amount of time copying the Raphael cartoons must partly be explained by his interest in training a new generation of artists as well as his own practise. He was involved in the various early Academies and even set up his own academy at the back of his house. The Cartoons were not publicly accessible at Hampton Court and they were primarily known through engravings and painted copies. Copying was widespread in the latter decades of the 17th century as the pictorial conception of a painting was highly regarded even over its actual execution. The French Academy in Rome, for instance, set the precedent for an extensive practice of making copies on a large scale and this became an integral part of its curriculum.

Thornhill made not one but three sets of copies which was by any standards a remarkable achievement. The RA copies are the full size copies. Earlier in his career when Thornhill was given the commission to paint the cupola of St. Paul’s Cathedral he had studied the Raphael Cartoons very carefully as an important inspiration for his own compositions.

Thornhill’s copies won critical approbation including that of George Vertue, a contemporary, and antiquary and engraver. Vertue thought he had captured the true spirit and character of Raphael and that they were done with great precision, and had corrected the many accidents that the originals had suffered owing to time and repairs.

Thornhill died three years after the completion of the copies. This same-size set of copies were offered for sale with the rest of his collection in February 1734/35. They were bought by John Russell, fourth Duke of Bedford, for £200 (lot.101), a sum that Vertue remarked was less than the cost of the canvas and colours. Vertue was dismayed that went for so little but Horace Walpole attributed the low price to lack of bidders with houses of sufficient space to accommodate the works.

These copies hung for a few years in a magnificent gallery at Bedford House (formerly Southampton House), an elegant residence designed by Inigo Jones on the north side of Bloomsbury Square. Although the exterior is documented there are no surviving plans of the interior or any visual evidence of the gallery where Thornhill’s cartoons hung. However it is thought that Bedford adapted a room to display them soon after he bought them. The copies were recessed within panelling probably imitating the Gallery at Hampton Court.

When the house was demolished and its contents sold the copies were offered in the Duke of Bedford’s sale at Christies 7 May 1800 for 450 guineas but were probably bought in. Francis Russell, the 5th Duke, presented the copies to the Royal Academy three days after the sale.

The copies were hung in the great room of Somerset House when it was not in use for the summer exhibition and this can be seen in engraving by George A Scharf of Westmacott’s Lecture on Sculpture at the Royal Academy which shows three of the cartoons hanging in the Great Room. Sir Richard Westmacott was Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Academy 1857-1868 and the cartoons formed a backdrop to lectures given to the students. Many of the Professors of the Royal Academy made direct reference to the copies, including J.M.W. Turner and Benjamin West.

Subsequent RAs lectures continued to praise the Cartoons including West, Henry Fuseli, J.M.W. Turner, John Opie etc. Turner as professor perspective regularly lectured in the Great Room at Somerset House, where Thornhill’s full-size copies of Raphael were hung. Turner frequently referred to the copies, often looking to the underlying geometry of their composition which the nature of the subject demanded.

Further Reading

Arline Meyer, Apostles in England: Sir James Thornhill & the Legacy of Raphael's Tapestry Cartoons, exh. cat., Columbia University, New York, 1996

Object details

Paul preaching in the Areopagus
Sir James Thornhill (1675/76 - 1734)
Raphael (1483 - 1520)
Object type
Oil on canvas

3530 mm x 4420 mm

Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
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