Thornhill cartoon of St John and the eagle on display in Chinnor Church.

The Thornhill ‘Cartoons’

The cartoons are hung throughout the church: eight in the chancel and eight in the nave donated by John Huggins (1655–1745), a one-time keeper of the Fleet Prison and high bailiff of Westminster, whose son was made rector of Chinnor in 1728, and not the Revd James Musgrave, as suggested in the entry for Chinnor Church in the Oxfordshire volume of the Buildings of England series (Pevsner and Sherwood).

Designs were commissioned in 1721 as part of a scheme at Westminster Abbey that saw the rebuilding of the medieval rose window in the north transept and the construction of the west towers to designs by the architects Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723) and Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661–1736) [Fig. 4]. The work was initiated by Francis Atterbury (1663–1732), a prominent figure in the Church of England, who held the combined post of bishop of Rochester and dean of Westminster. Rather than repair the crumbling stonework of the medieval rose window, Sir Christopher Wren produced an entirely new design for the tracery, and the Chinnor church records show an entry in the abbey’s account book for 1723, signed by Hawksmoor, confirming a payment of £100 to Thornhill for producing designs of ‘16 large figures 7 ft, high of the Apostles and Evangelists on Canvasses and Frames, in proper Colours, for the Glass Painter to work

Thornhill was an obvious choice for such a prestigious scheme. After serving an apprenticeship with Thomas Highmore (1660–1720) – one of London’s leading painters, and eventually sergeant-painter to William III, an honourable and lucrative position within the Royal establishment that involved painting palaces, coaches, royal barges, and festive decorations – Thornhill had worked for a number of important clients, including the duke of Devonshire, before winning the commission that transformed his reputation and which occupied him throughout the greater part of his career. Beginning in 1707, his work in the Painted Hall at the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich, is arguably the most impressive baroque interior in England and established him as the leading native history painter (an artist who uses mythology and allegory for decorative schemes) in a field hitherto dominated by foreigners