This allegorical frieze of the liberal arts is Thornhill's neat version of a design that he developed in several compositions in the British Museum sketchbook. The putti studying the globe on the far left represent astronomy, while geometry sits on the ground using mathematical instruments; painting occupies the centre and music the right part of the composition. Sculpture sits facing away from the viewer. It would have been suitable for a client who was sympathetic to the arts or for for an educational setting such as the Royal Academy that Thornhill proposed to the Earl of Halifax in 1714. At Thornhill's sale in 1735 Vertue saw 'many draughts plans &c by Sr James Thornhill... consisting of many apartments convenient for such a purpose' and costing £3139.
The idea that Thornhill had an academy in mind is supported by allegorical designs on pages 14 and 16 of the British Museum sketchbook, which make explicit references to academies. One of these is a vertically arranged trophy composition but palettes, brushes, pictures and measuring tools have replaced shields and other implements of warfare. The other is horizontal and features a putto painting as another approaches with a laurel wreath, preparing to crown him for his work. Others stand about debating the merits of a landscape painting. In the right corner, putti hold up a large shield bearing the coat of arms of a patron. On page 16 are two further putti friezes in pen outlines, again allegories of the fine arts, the lower design features putti participating in a drawing academy. The upper of these two designs more closely approaches Thornhill’s settled design as seen in our carefully finished version. In the sketchbook the putto at the easel is already present at the centre, with a cellist on the right and an astronomer at the far left. The figure of sculpture appears with his back turned, though sitting in the space ultimately occupied by geometry, who does not feature here but is in the lower sketch. These drawings are in the sketchbook either side of sheets which Osmun judged to be early thoughts for the upper hall at Greenwich. Thornhill painted the lower hall first, between 1708 and 1712 or 1714 before turning to the upper hall. Associating the putti designs with Thornhill's aspirations for a Royal Academy, which he formalised in his proposal of 1714, is therefore consistent with what we know about his use of the sketchbook.
Thornhill made three further sketches of the liberal arts in the sketchbook within a group of seven pencil allegorical designs on pages 38 and 39. One his inscribed 'Ut Pictora Poesis erit / Hor:' and is perhaps linked to an advertisement in the Daily Courant of 11 May 1719 which announced the publication of 'An Epistle from Hampstead, to Mr. Thornhill in Covent Garden. By Mr. Sewell. Ut Pictura Poesis... Hor.' Thornhill provided some measurements in the sketchbook which suggests that he drew them with some firm project in mind. The measurements show that they were intended to be painted four feet and three inches wide.
- Vertue, vol.III, p.74.
- William Raymond Osmun, A Study of the Work of Sir James Thornhill, unpublished PhD thesis, University of London, 1950, p.410.
- William Raymond Osmun, A Study of the Work of Sir James Thornhill, unpublished PhD thesis, University of London, 1950, p.141, who suggests it may have been a satire on Thornhill's aspirations as an architect.