This classically inspired scene shows Dido, Queen of Carthage falling in love with Aeneas, the legendary Trojan leader and hero of Virgil’s Aeneid, as he recounts the burning of Troy following the Greek victory in the Trojan War. Shipwrecked near Carthage, Aeneas later abandoned Dido to continue his journey to Italy in order to found what became Rome. Dido, heartbroken at his departure, took her own life.
By 1700 wall paintings were replacing tapestry as a cheaper yet more fashionable decoration for grand halls. Noble families commissioned artists, often from France, Holland and Italy, to decorate their homes with mythological or allegorical scenes, an indicator of wealth and status, as well as demonstrating the owner's learning, allegiance and sophisticated taste. Paintings such as the one in the Government Art Collection would have been offered for approval to the client before the decorative work began. It is possible that, in Thornhill’s case, the client would have been James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos, for whom he undertook a commission between 1715 and 1725. Described as ‘Englands [sic] Apollo’, the Duke was a leading patron of the arts, who displayed his collection in Cannons, his magnificent home near Stanmore in Middlesex. The design and decoration of his country house were intended to stimulate the visitors’ reaction of admiration for the patron’s wealth, political power and connoisseurship. For instance, when Daniel Defoe visited the house in 1725 he wrote that he was so affected by the sight of it that he could not write down his feelings and recommended that one experience it for oneself. It is likely that this painting would have been a preparatory work for the l decorative scheme of Cannons. Its placement would have featured on the staircase. There are a number of drawings and preparatory sketches by Thornhill associated with the decorative paintings in Cannons which can be found in various collections in London. A pen and wash drawing for Dido and Aeneas, with slight variations to the GAC painting is in the British Museum. Another oil on canvas sketch for the same interior, showing Aeneas before Dido and Venus Supplicating Jupiter and dated c. 1720, survives in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Similarly, an unfinished sketch in Tate’s collection is a design for a grand staircase and shows mythological scenes of an assembly of gods in the heavens, the Birth of Venus and Neptune in his chariot. The house was pulled down and the murals destroyed around 1750 after the fraudulent speculations of the South Sea Bubble bankrupted the Duke.
James Thornhill, born in Dorset, was apprenticed to Thomas Highmore (1689-97) but also studied and probably assisted Antonio Verrio and Louis Laguerre. He became a Freeman of the Painter-Stainers’ Company in 1704 and began painting scenery in 1705. His surviving decorative schemes include those at Greenwich Hospital (1708-27), Blenheim Palace (1716), Charborough Park (1718) and St. Paul’s Cathedral (1716-19). Queen Anne also employed him to paint an apartment at Hampton Court. He visited the Netherlands and Paris in 1711 and in the same year became a director of Sir Godfrey Kneller’s Academy, taking it over in 1716. In 1720, he became Serjeant Painter and was knighted. He became MP for Weymouth in 1722 and ran an Academy from his home.
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