The present drawing depicts The Abduction of Cephalus by Eos. The scheme was commissioned by King George I in November 1714, following his and the Prince of Wales’s visit to Hampton Court and the resulting decision to complete the Queen’s State Apartments in order to provide suitable accommodation for the Prince and Princess of Wales. The apartments had been left unfinished following the death of Queen Mary in 1694 and the coved white ceiling designed by Sir Christopher Wren had been left blank since its completion in the 1690s.
The scheme was for many years thought to depict Leucothoë restraining Apollo from entering his chariot, but it has recently been reinvestigated and is now believed to depict Cephalus being abducted by Eos or Aurora, who had fallen in love with the Athenian prince. (see C. Brett, ‘Revealing Thornhill’s mythological scene at Hampton Court’, British Art Journal, 2012/3, 13, pp. 3-8, no. 3). The subject is taken from Book 7 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and owes its popularity throughout Europe to the play Favolo di Cefalo by Niccolò de Correggio (1450-1508). Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) for Cardinal Odoardo, Rubens (1577-1640) for King Philip IV of Spain, and Poussin (1594-1665) had all explored the subject previously.
Thornhill had already worked on the decoration of the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court when he was selected to design the Queen's Bedroom. The ceiling was completed by June 1715 and was favourably regarded by the Royal Family, as well as the Board of the Office of Works, including Sir Christopher Wren and Sir John Vanbrugh, who stated that it was ‘skilfully and laboriously performed’. There is a modello for the ceiling design in the Soane Museum, London and a related drawing in the Royal Collection.
Five years earlier Thornhill had explored the subject in a decorative scheme for the dining room of Hanbury Hall, for the lawyer Thomas Vernon, as part of a series of decorative paintings exploring the myths of love. The scheme was much smaller and simpler than the Hampton Court composition, although, co-incidentally Thornhill was completing the series begun by Verrio, which also took the myths of love as its unifying theme.
Thornhill was the first native-born artist to establish himself as a decorative History painter and to compete with the French and Italian specialists who had dominated the field previously. His first major commission was the Painted Hall, Greenwich, which he began in 1708 and which took him almost 19 years to complete. He worked on numerous schemes, many of which, because of their very nature as decoration, have not survived, including St Paul's Cathedral, Kensington and Blenheim Palaces, and Chatsworth. In June 1718 Thornhill was appointed History Painter-in-Ordinary to the King and in 1720 he was appointed Sergeant-Painter, and was knighted, the first British painter to be so honoured and appointed Master of the Painter-Stainer’s Company.