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Sketches by Sir James Thornhill on display in the Painted Hall

News

Fri 5 Aug 22

Rarely seen early 18th-century drawings by Sir James Thornhill, on loan from the British Museum, are to go on show in the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College from August. The four sketches show Thornhill’s intricate early designs for the Painted Hall and for Headley Park House in Hampshire. Thornhill’s vast wall and ceiling scheme for the Painted Hall took 19 years to complete and is widely regarded as his masterpiece.

These lively sketchbook drawings in brown ink and pencil show Thornhill exploring grand themes, such as the triumph of peace and liberty over tyranny and arbitrary power. Key elements of the Lower Hall ceiling design, and compositional elements of the West Wall of the Painted Hall, begin to emerge, influenced in part by other Baroque artists of the period, the Italian Antonio Verrio and the French decorative painters Charles Le Brun and Louis Laguerre.

Sir James Thornhill was still relatively unknown when, at 32 years old, he won the commission at what was then the Royal Hospital for Seamen, Greenwich. Created between 1707 and 1726, the Painted Hall decorative scheme depicts Great Britain as a Protestant constitutional monarchy with aspirations to be a major maritime power. The transition of monarchy from Stuarts to Hanoverians, scientific discovery, maritime navigation and exploration, the growth of commerce and prosperity and the beginnings of Empire are conveyed by a panoply of classical gods and legendary characters. By turns extravagant, playful, thoughtful and politically shrewd, the Painted Hall earned Thornhill the position of Serjeant Painter to the King, which brought with it a knighthood.

The Painted Hall features 4,000 square metres of walls and ceilings and is open to visit. You can book one of our regular public tours or borrow a multimedia guide to help you construct your own tour. Lay back on the day beds and gaze up at the ceiling to experience a Classical allegory of early eighteenth-century Britain.