This sketch is believed to be a modello for Thornhill's reworking of the principal staircase ceiling at Wollaton Hall, Nottinghamshire. The original staircase ceiling, painted by Louis Laguerre circa 1699, represented the 'Assembly of the Gods'. This ceiling was later modified by Thornhill with the additional scene of 'Prometheus stealing fire from the Gods'. Thornhill was also responsible for the main decoration on the walls which showed, 'Prometheus bringing fire to men', 'The Sacrifice of Mercury and Argus', with subsidiary overdoor decoration illustrating the story of 'Mercury and Argus'. For discussion see E. Croft-Murray, Decorative Painting in England: 1537-1837, p. 1962, p. 254, no. 28 and p. 274, no. 46.
It is possible that this sketch is a preliminary reworking of other aspects of Laguerre's original theme, Apollo sits upon clouds in the centre, with the other gods about him and the symbols of the zodiac beneath, as his son, Phaeton, asks to drive the sun-god's chariot for a day. Phaeton's reckless attempt to drive his father's chariot made him the symbol of all who aspire to that which lies beyond his capabilities and was a popular subject in Renaissance and Baroque painting. The subject of Apollo granting Phaeton leave to drive the chariot of the sun had most famously been painted by Laguerre on the ceiling of the Music Room at Chatsworth, circa 1689-94. The present sketch relates closely to a slightly smaller variant sold through these rooms on 12 July 1990 (lot 76).
Wollaton Hall was built in 1580-8, probably by Robert Smythson, for Sir Francis Willoughby, 1st Lord Middleton, a mining magnate. It is probable that Sir Thomas Willoughby, 2nd Bt., later 1st Lord Middleton, commissioned the staircase and ceiling. Sketches for the reworking of the ceiling of the principal staircase are in the British Museum.
We are grateful to Brian Tuppen for his help with this catalogue entry.