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Sir James Thornhill, 1675–1734

Design for Ceiling Walls and Staircase

between 1712 and 1713
Materials & Techniques:
Pen and brown ink, gray wash, brown wash and graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper
Sheet: 15 1/4 x 19 5/8 inches (38.7 x 49.8 cm)

Inscribed in pen and brown ink, upper right: "Gratitude ye Principal figure, crownd by Peace, & over, wch Providence| particularly presides| Industry, leaning on a Bee hive attended by Plenty & holding a plan or | upright For St George.| Fame soudning ye praise of Gratitude. & Industry"; in graphite, upper center: "19 - 4"; in pen and brown ink lower center: "127 [...] | (sequential numbers from 1 to 20)"; in pen and brown ink lower left: "Syllas Triumph, is followd by ye Citizens &c. wth loud | acclamation, in that he has redeemd them from Slavery"; in pen and ink lower center: "Sylla gratefully offers ye 10th of all his Spoyls | to Hercules"; in pen and brown ink lower right: "The Roman People, Ladys &c. strive to adorn ye | [...] of Sylla"; in pen and brown ink, lower center: "Thos Pitt"; inscribed on back: extensive notes in pen and brown ink and in graphite

Signed in graphite, lower right: "Sir Jas Thornhill"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
architectural subject | chariot | children | horse (animal) | men | nude | staircase | women
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IIIF Manifest:

As History Painter in Ordinary to King George I, Sir James Thornhill catered to the baroque taste for large and illusionistic decorative schemes, and he received many important commissions for the adornment of royal palaces. He also extended his services to wealthy private citizens, as indicated by this design for Thomas Pitt. Known as "Diamond Pitt" for his mercantile exploits in India, he was eventually appointed Governor of Madras at Fort St. George. He returned to England in 1710 and used his wealth to remodel his many residences, including his favorite, Swallowfield Park in Berkshire.
Thornhill devised this decorative scheme depicting events from the life of the Roman General Lucius Sulla for a stairwell in one of Pitt's homes, probably Swallowfiled Park. Sulla, the victor of the first Roman civil war in the first century B.C., appointed himself dictator to enact constitutional reforms and strengthen the waning Roman republic. It is tempting to connect the figure of the victorious Sulla, her a benign victor who releases his people from slavery and distributes his wealth , with that of Pitt, as Thornhill has included a drawing of Pitt's Indian post, Fort St. George, in the hands of Industry on the ceiling. In depicting his plan, Thornhill uses the convention of architectural drawing known as "the laid out wall elevation," whereby the ceiling is depicted as above the walls, which are "ironed out" to appear as one continuous wall space.

Morna O'Neill

Wilcox, Forrester, O'Neil, Sloan. The Line of Beauty: British Drawings and Watercolors of the Eighteenth Century. Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 2001. pg. 172 cat. no. 145

Connections (Yale Center for British Art, 2011-05-26 - 2011-09-11) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

The Line of Beauty : British Drawings and Watercolors of the Eighteenth Century (Yale Center for British Art, 2001-05-19 - 2001-08-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

John Baskett, English drawings and watercolors, 1550-1850, in the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon , The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 1972, pp. 9-10, no. 11, NC228 B37+ (YCBA) [YCBA]

Laura Jacobus, On 'Whether a Man Could See before Him and behind Him Both at Once' : The role of drawing in the design of interior space in England, c. 1600-1800, Architectural History, vol. 31, 1988, p. 163, fig. 9, NA1 .A69 (Haas) [ORBIS]

Paul Mellon's Legacy : a passion for British art [large print labels], , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 2, N5220 M552 P381 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Scott Wilcox, Line of beauty : British drawings and watercolors of the eighteenth century, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2001, p. 172, no. 145, NC228 W53 2001 (YCBA) [YCBA]

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