We are fortunate that the eighteenth-century chronicler, George Vertue (1683-1756), kept a record of artistic activity over some forty years (171354) and was interested in all forms of painting." In history painting he traces the rise of Sir James Thornhill and the domination of Venetians such as Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini and Sebastiano and Marco Ricci. In the early years of the century commissions were still given to Antonio Verrio (d. 1707) and to Louis Laguerre (d. 1721). At Petworth House, Sussex, Laguerre's men took measurements, c. 1719, and then the French artist painted the staircase walls with 'The Triumph of Elizabeth, Duchess of Somerset, surrounded by her family' and the ceiling with 'An Assembly of the Gods'. At Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, Laguerre supplanted Thornhill, whom the Duchess of Marlborough thought too expensive. In the saloon he stayed in style true to the fresco technique, depicting a feigned wall panelling and oak panelling colonnade resting on Grilling Gibbons's marble dado and assembling people from the four continents to pay homage to the duke, a theme he borrowed unashamedly from Charles Le Brun's 'Escalier des Ambassadeurs' at Versailles. It was to be his last work, for he died on a visit to the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre on 20 April 1721.
It is not known how James Thornhill (c. 1676-1734) came to take up painting as a profession. He was not knighted until 1720 when his best work was done, and within a year or two of that he was rejected for the painting at Kensington Palace (1722) in favour of William Kent. His apprenticeship to the Sergeant Painter, Thomas Highmore, had ended in 1696 and his first work seems to have been under Verrio at Hampton Court (1702-4). Thornhill emerged as a major painter in 1705 with the commission for the hall and staircase of Stoke Edith, Hereford and Worcester. This was destroyed by fire in 1927 and the work can only be judged from photographs.-" However, many other commissions give ample testimony to Thornhill's skills, notably his masterpiece, the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital (1708-27), and in domestic settings at, for example, Blenheim Palace (the hall ceiling, 1716); Chatsworth (1702-8); Hanbury Hall, Hereford and Worcester (c. 1710); and in the chapel at Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire (1724). The staircase walls at Hanbury are filled with many figures engaged in the arcane complexities of mythology: Thetis visiting Vulcan's forge, Achilles choosing the spear and Ajax and Ulysses contending for the arms of Achilles. On the ceiling overhead a figure of Mercury holds a small likeness of Dr Henry Sacheverell that has been set alight by the Furies, dating the work to about 1710, the year of Sacheverell's trial. His arrest had been occasioned by his outspoken preaching against the government in November 1709. The chapel at Wimpole Hall rises to the full height of the house and has a family gallery. Thornhill painted the walls and ceiling, and proudly signed the work over the door. Whilst the colouring is less exuberant than at Greenwich, the altar-wall has a large 'Adoration of the Magi' and there are painted niches with simulated statues and painted coffering on the ceiling. It is in the grand manner of Verrio and Laguerre, but lacks their bravura.
In the early years of the eighteenth century the most important centre of painting in Italy was Venice. Its greatest figure, Gianbattista Tiepolo, never visited England but many of his predecessors and contemporaries did, bringing with them a colourful palette allied to lightness of touch, qualities hitherto almost unknown in England. On the Duke of Manchester's return to England from his diplomatic missions on behalf of Queen Anne in 1708, he was accompanied by two Venetian painters, Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675-1741) and Marco Ricci (1676-1730). Pellegrini s brightly painted turbaned figures on the staircase walls of the Duke of Manchester's seat, Kimbolton Castle, Cambridgeshire (remodelled wall panelling and oak panelling by Sir John Vanbrugh, 1708-20), are typical of his late-Venetian style. This is still seen to great advantage in what survived of his work after the fire of November 1940 at Castle Howard, Yorkshire, Vanbrugh's first 'great fine house', and indeed, in photographs of the destroyed dome painting.
Marco Ricci, who specialized in architectural and landscape fantasies, also worked at Castle Howard but, according to Vertue, eventually took himself back to Venice 'upon some disgust with Pellegrini'. He returned to England later with his uncle, Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734), the leader of the Venetian school. Of the elder Ricci's mural works now remaining in England the most important are two splendid canvases on the staircase of Burlington House, Piccadilly, c. 1715, and the masterly 'Resurrection', in oil on plaster, on the dome of the apse of the Chelsea Hospital chapel.
Two other active Venetian painters in England were the mediocre Antonio Bellucci (1624-1726) and the mysterious Francesco Sleter (16851775). Bellucci's best-known paintings were those he did in about 1720 for the Duke of Chandos's chapel at Cannons, Middlesex. These were acquired at the demolition sale at Cannons in 1747 by Thomas, 2nd Lord Foley, and re-instated with gilded papier-mache embellishments, in the ceiling of the church at Great Witley, Hereford and Worcester. The canvases depict the 'Nativity', the 'Deposition' and the 'Ascension', with ovals of cherubs holding the symbols of the Passion. Sleter, who Anglicized his name to Slater (and may have come from the northern Veneto) is also best known for work he did for the Duke of Chandos's chapel at Cannons (he designed the windows, which were painted by Joshua Price, now in Great Witley Church), and for his lively mythological paintings at Mereworth Castle, Kent, and Moor Park, Hertfordshire. He died in his ninetieth year at Mereworth in 1775 and his burial in the churchyard there is commemorated by a tablet on the south wall of the church.
Bellucci's pupil, and much his superior in ability, was Jacopo Amigoni or Amiconi (1682-1752) who followed his master to England in 1727 or 1730. The four elegant canvases c. 1732 depicting the story of Jupiter and lo, set into Giuseppe Artari and Giovanni Bagutti's gilded stucco frames at Moor Park, Hertfordshire, show him at his best; they are colourful, well-composed canvases of appealing subject-matter.
In spite of this bright work by the Venetian decorators, many English patrons still looked to the riches of the Imperial City of Rome, which they had seen on their Grand Tours, with Raphael and the Seicento as their artistic inspiration. Thus, in July 1709 three patrons, Sir William Wentworth, Burrell Massingberd and Sir John Chester, imbued with these ideals, sent the young Yorkshire-born painter William Kent (1685-1748) to study in Italy. Kent became the pupil of Benedetto Luti (whose portrait of Kent in 1719 is at Chatsworth) and in 1717 he was ready to fresco the ceiling of the little church of S. Giuliano dei Fiamminghi with a glorification of the eponymous saint. Kent, despite all his efforts, never made a good painter but, on his return to England, he exploited to some effect the convention of an assembly of figures under a wall panelling and oak panelling colonnade, as well as producing brightly coloured versions of antique Roman grotesques for the staircase at Kensington Palace (c. 1725-7). He also incorporated these into his work (c. 1739) for Lt-General James Dormer, at Rousham, Oxfordshire. Another type of decoration favoured by Kent was in the 'mosaic taste', which he used in ceilings painted for his mentor, Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, at Chiswick House, Middlesex (c. 1727-35), and at Houghton Hall, Norfolk. Here, Sir Robert Walpole confined Kent as much as he could to a monochrome scheme, fearing the painter's unhappy use of colour. However, marine deities amid foliated scroll work in green, pink and white on a gold mosaic ground are depicted on the ceiling of the White Drawing Room, and the monochrome, where it was in use, was often in richly laid gold.
More skilful than Kent in his imitation of the approved Roman manner was the Piedmontese painter, Giuseppe Mattia Borgnis (1701-61). He was invited to England in about 1736 by Sir Francis Dashwood, and set to work in his patron's Italianate villa in Buckinghamshire, West Wycombe Park. His frescoes there give an excellent idea of the taste of an English virtuoso with Bacchus, Aurora, biblical subjects after Raphael in the Vatican logge, banquets of the gods, nymphs bathing and even the Aldobrandini marriage adapted to the staircase and ceilings of the principal rooms.
Half-Timbered Hall of Greate Dexter, Sussex
The lively forms of North Italian Rococo practised by the Venetians soon gave way to the greater elegance of the French Rococo. It has been demonstrated by Mark Girouard-` that the group of artists who frequented the St Martin's Lane Academy and the neighbouring Slaughter's coffee house were mainly responsible for promoting this new taste for the Rococo in England. The group's leading personalities were Sir James Thornhill's son-in-law, William Hogarth (who never forgave William Kent for taking the Kensington Palace commission from his father-in-law), the painter Francis Hayman, the engraver Hubert-Francois Gravelot and the sculptor Louis-Francois Roubiliac. Another member was the specialist in exotic forms of the grotesque - chinoiserie, turquerie and singerie - Andien de Clermont (fl. 1716-1783). One of the liveliest of Clermont's monkey decorations is the cove of the parlour ceiling at Kirtlington Park, Oxfordshire (1744). In one scene 'a monkey-man mounted on a greyhound and clad in doublet and plumed cap struggles with a fowling-piece ... and in another an elegant monkey-lady in yellow satin follows the chase on a lively foxhound-steed'.`' It allowed a patron to feel he had entered at least a fabled world of the chase without stirring a single gout-laid limb.