Sir James Thornhill, painter, was born in Dorset in 1675 or 1676. The earliest evidence of Thornhill’s practice as an artist comes in 1699 when he inscribed the date into his sketchbook which was used intermittently until 1718.
In 1705 Thornhill designed the scenery for Thomas Clayton’s opera Arsinoe, Queen of Cyprus performed in London. Two years later he won his most famous secular commission for the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital, London, for which he was paid £1 per yard for the walls and £3 per yard for the ceiling. The masterpiece established him as the leading native decorative history painter in the country. He later began work on the upper hall in 1718 and finished four years later.
In 1714 he won the commission to paint the bedchamber of the Prince of Wales (later George II) at Hampton Court Palace, through the influence of the prominent Whig Charles Mantagu, Lord Halifax, first Lord of the Treasury. On 28th June 1715 Thornhill beat Antonia Pellegrini to win a drawnout contest to decorate the dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral. By 1721, when his outstanding bill was paid, Thornhill received over £6500. By June 1718 Thornhill was officially recognised as the foremost decorating painter in England by his appointment as history painter-in-ordinary to the king. In March 1720 he became the king’s sergeant-painter and on the 2nd May he was knighted.
Thornhill undertook many other private commissions including the east end of the chapel at All Soul’s College, Oxford, and the chapel at Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire for Edward Harley.
He became master of the freemason’s lodge in 1725 and senior grand warden of London’s grand lodge in 1728. In 1725-8 Thornhill created Moor Park, Hertfordshire, for Benjamin Styles.
Sir James Thornhill died on the 4th May 1734 following illness.