Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Myths and Morality: two Covent Garden scene painters

At Hampton Court Palace, I once watched a charismatic storyteller make a class of prep-school boys in their caps and blazers all lie down on the floor, to see the mythological characters in the ceiling painting properly.  Was it perhaps this ceiling painting of the Dawn by Sir James Thornhill  in the Queen's State Bedchamber?

Sketch design for ceiling painting in the Queen's State Bedchamber,   James Thornhill 1715
© Sir John Soane's Museum, London

Thornhill was an assistant to Antonio Verrio, and replaced him as Britains' finest native-born Baroque painter.  George I found Thornhill to be better and cheaper: he was paid £3. 11s. per yard, £457 in total for this ceiling, with its classical allegory of Apollo in his golden chariot surrounded by portraits of the Royal family.  He even had to paint scenery for the King's theatre at Hampton Court.

His best known great decorative schemes can be seen in two of Wren's masterpieces, St Paul's Cathedral and the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.  An early commission in his career, beginning in 1708, the Painted Hall at Greenwich shows William III and Queen Mary bringing Liberty and Peace to Europe, celebrating succeeding Protestant monarchs and maritime prowess.  Amazing in Wren's magnificent setting,  the paintings are now undergoing large-scale conservation and close-up viewing of work in progress will be possible for visitors to Greenwich this year.  see ornc.org.uk

The Painted Hall,  the Old Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich  

During the 19 years it took to complete, (at £3 a yard), he worked on many other projects, including his work high up in St Paul's Cathedral, between 1715 and 1717, where his grisaille paintings of St. Paul's life encircling the dome blend perfectly with the interior architecture. A story runs that checking progress one day, Thornhill stepped back perilously close to the edge of the scaffolding; fortunately a quick-witted assistant, afraid of startling his master into falling backwards,  smeared over part of the painting so that Thornhill rushed forward to correct it.  

Sir James Thornhill c. 1712-15    Marcellus Laroon 
© National Maritime Museum, London

At this time, Thornhill was a leading figure in the artistic community of Covent Garden. In 1716 Thornhill took over the first Art Academy,* which he had helped Sir Godfrey Kneller to establish at his premises in Great Queen Street, and moved the classes to his own new painting room in Covent Garden (based approximately where the Royal Opera House now stands). The equipment included " a proper table for the figure to stand on, a large lamp, an iron stove and benches in a circular form". Without charging fees, and no proper financial support from rich patrons, it foundered, but the idea was there and the young artists moved to a St Martin's Lane academy * in the 1720s.  

Among them was William Hogarth, who became an assistant to Thornhill, and later 'eloped' to marry his daughter Jane in March 1729 (he had obtained the licence a year before at St. Paul's,  Covent Garden).  

A happily married Mrs Jane Hogarth,  by William Hogarth c.1730;  she worked closely with William supporting Coram's Foundling Hospital.   © Aberdeen Art Gallery, Scotland

Thornhill would have been dismayed at Hogarth's lack of prospects or family connections, which were then an essential part of financial success. Thornhill himself was from a notable Dorset family - his maternal grandfather was Governor of Weymouth - and a legacy paid for his apprenticeship to Thomas Highmore, also a Dorset man.   Although  Hogarth aspired to be a great historical painter like his father-in-law, he proved to be the coming man, who would outstrip his mentor in reputation,  buying a gentleman's country villa in Chiswick in 1749.  

Thornhill's major paintings were high up in churches and palaces, but Hogarth's paintings,  from his training as an engraver, you could hold in your hand as a print, and understand the emotions of the characters.  

The Lady's Last Stake   William Hogarth  c. 1758
© Albright-Knox Art Gallery,  Buffalo, New York

As Hester Piozzi (Mrs Thrale) recalls a childhood encounter in her memoirs:

 "But the next time we went to Leicester Fields, Mr Hogarth was painting, and bid me sit to him; 'And now look here,' said he, 'I am doing this for you.  You are not fourteen years old yet, I think, but you will be twenty-four, and this portrait will then be like you.  'Tis the lady's last stake; see how she hesitates between her money and her honour.  Take you care; I see an ardour for play in your eyes and in your heart: don't indulge it.  I shall give you this picture as a warning, because I love you now, you are so good a girl' ."  from Thraliana.

But Thornhill and Hogarth were not just scene painters;  both men in their different ways were real scene-changers in eighteenth century art in Britain. 

* forerunners of the  Royal Academy of Art

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