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  • image SM volume 111/55

Reference number

SM volume 111/55


Preliminary design by a member of the circle of Sir James Thornhill (with alternatives) for an illusionistic painted ceiling in two compartments


Reflected ceiling plan


12 feet to 7 7/16 inches (modified in pencil annotations to approximately 10 feet to 8 ¾ inches)


By the draughtsman in pen and brown ink along right-hand short end of ceiling plan, 12 fott, deleted in pencil and inscribed to right, in pencil, 10 fott; and in pen and brown ink on long axis beneath right-hand compartment, (partly cut off by trimming of sheet), 9 fot 7 in, deleted in pencil; and beneath left-hand compartment (almost entirely cut off), [14] fot [3 inches], deleted in pencil; and in pencil along left-hand edge, 8 fott 6 in; and in pencil in reverse sense on long side at top, above right-hand compartment, 8 fott 6 in; and above left-hand compartment, 10 fott

Signed and dated

  • 1720s-1730s

Medium and dimensions

Pen and brown ink with grey wash over pencil;


Circle of Sir James Thornhill


Rampant lion in medallion = IHD (similar to Heawood 3140, although with different countermark)


When first drawn, the design was in the opposite sense to that indicated by the pencil inscriptions, since these represent a revision to the dimensions and proportions of the original ceiling plan. As originally drawn, the smaller compartment was on the right and the larger one on the left. The overall dimensions were 12 feet by 24 feet, that is, the double square of the drawn plan. The draughtsman subsequently revised the dimensions, reducing the width to 10 feet and the length to 18 feet 6 inches, implying a proportion of slightly less than a double square.

The proposal is for a room with a smaller, nearly square compartment at one end, and a rectangular compartment at the other. The design presents alternatives for the painted decoration of the decoration of both compartments. The small compartment has an octagonal central containing a trumpet-blowing angel and alternatives for the oval shaped corner compartments of the coved ceiling: large, gadrooned vases on the right, and baskets of flowers on the left. The larger compartment has an elongated octagonal central panel decorated with the figure of a naked god on a cloud upturning a large, shell-like cornucopia, with a gesturing cupid figure to his left. The outer panels are drawn in alternatives on the long axis, the upper scheme (in the original sense of the drawing) being a trompe-l'oeil perspective of an attic story with semi-circular lunettes in the side panels containing a vase and basket of fruit (on the short sides) and a winged cupid figure and a small animal (on the long side), and the lower scheme a flatter design with large roundels decorated with flower motifs in the corners and a smaller roundel in the middle of the long side. The cornucopia motif on the larger panel suggests a dining room with an alcove at one end. Alternatively, it could be a design for a large saloon, with an alcove for music at one end.

Gordon Higgott, 2006

The following comprises an update to this catalogue, made in 2022:

Previously attributed to Sir James Thornhill himself, this drawing has since been reattributed to an unknown member of his circle thanks to research undertaken by Richard Stephens on Thornhill's pupil, the draughtsman Thomas Carwitham. Stephens has found that this drawing is one of five by a consistent unknown early eighteenth-century draughtsman working broadly in the style of Thornhill. There are three ceiling studies: this drawing at Sir John Soane's Museum, plus one at the British Museum: 1967,0617.1, and another at the Yale Center for British Art: B1975.2.595. The British Museum and Yale drawings also have related staircase studies: BM 1967,0617.2 and YCBA B1975.2.596.

On this subject Stephens has written the following which forms an excerpt from his forthcoming publication on Carwitham:

A staircase design in the British Museum (1967,0617.2) might at first glance be taken for a drawing by Thomas Carwitham, but for discrepancies in the handling of the pen and brush, and most obviously in the figure drawing in the bust at the ground-floor level and the caryatid above it. Although the spaces for history paintings are left blank, scant attention is paid to the decoration either, such as the floral basket overdoor, or the floral garlands. Indeed, alternative solutions are offered (eg, the figurative and floral approaches flanking the doorways) making this a sheet of decorative options rather than a worked-out design. The author was presumably a student of architectural painting still learning the basics of the discipline: the use of wash to indicate shade is scrappy, especially in the two door openings and in the fluting of the pilaster towards the top of the stairs and, at the foot of the staircase, the join with the wall space to the left of the door is awkward. A drawing at Yale (B1975.2.596) should be understood as its pair, for it advances further decorative options in the same interior space. Three ceiling designs, at Yale (B1975.2.595), the Soane Museum (SM vol. 111/55) and the British Museum (1967,0617.1) adopt the same approach as the staircase drawings, in offering a menu of decorative approaches. The strongest drawing of the five, in the Soane Museum, hitherto bore a full attribution to Thornhill, but they are all by the same anonymous student, as is apparent by comparing the floral baskets that appear in all three with the British Museum staircase. A thread of animal humour connects several of the drawings too: a dog in his kennel in the Yale staircase, the same cat in the Soane and Yale ceilings, and what appears to be dog trampling on the basket of flowers in the British Museum ceiling. The pairs of drawings at the British Museum and Yale were also accessioned consecutively, which argues for a connection [BM came from Ben Weinreb (1912-99) the Yale pair from John Harris (1931-2022)]. For Thomas Carwitham, the historical composition is the central purpose of his drawing, with architectural elements serving only to frame and contextualise. However this anonymous student's lack of concern with history painting is evident, for the compartments reserved for it are blank in both staircases and in all three ceilings they are filled with single figures. We can speculate that, just as the student of history painting might practice his facility in drawing postures in a sheet such as Carwitham's Studies of River Gods (V&A), so perhaps the student of architectural painting would demonstrate his awareness of the competing decorative approaches to an interior space, and that this is the function of these five drawings.

Richard Stephens, 2022



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