This spectacular, highly finished drawing was made by Sir James Thornhill in preparation for the decoration of Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire. This previously unpublished sheet demonstrates both Thornhill’s absorption of continental drawing styles, but also his ambitions in presenting a complex mythological composition to his client. Hanbury was the home of lawyer Thomas Vernon an eminent Chancery barrister who amassed a considerable fortune. He remodelled Hanbury from 1700, commissioning Thornhill to decorate a series of rooms in around 1710.
Thornhill chose scenes from the life of Achilles, with a depiction of the Assembly of the Gods on the ceiling and the walls illustrating other episodes. It was on the west wall that Thornhill depicted The Discovery of Achilles amongst the daughters of Lycomedes. Achilles's mother had disguised him as a woman in order to prevent him dying in combat during the Trojan Wars. She sent him to live as a woman in the court of King Lycomedes of Skyros. When Odysseus and Diomedes later came to retrieve him, they tricked Achilles into revealing himself. Bringing gifts of jewellery and clothes for the ladies of the court, as well as a sword and a shield, Achilles instinctively seized the weapons thus revealing himself. This was a popular subject for history painters, with several versions being recorded on the London art market in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The story was best known through a series of eight etchings of the History of Achilles (1679) based on tapestry designs by Rubens.
Thornhill's working method was to make his first thoughts about a project in rapid pen and ink sketches, and frequently he worked up several competing treatments of the same story. Thornhill's first ideas for this composition survive in a pen and ink sketch now at Hanbury. Initially the figures of King Lycomedes and his queen were most prominent, with Achilles shown handling a spear at the bottom of a flight of steps, surrounded by the ladies of the court. Thornhill's ideas changed significantly between this early stage and this more considered and fully developed drawing. Thornhill did much of this thinking on the sheet itself, which retains the loose red chalk drawing underneath the pen and wash, which he made at the initial stage of working when experimenting with poses and gestures. In our drawing, Lycomedes has been removed to the background, with Achilles holding a spear and shield given greater prominence. This brings the narrative and composition closer to Rubens’s design. The finished painting at Hanbury represents a further development. Lycomedes is now omitted altogether, and Thornhill has made a clearer spatial distinction between Achilles and the women, who are clustered in a triangular shape on the right; Achilles is positioned more emphatically on the left, close to Odysseus and Diomedes, perhaps signifying his into readmission into the world of men. A further, fully developed drawing at the Cooper Hewitt in New York shows the same composition, but in reverse, and what must have been Thornhill's oil on canvas sketch of this subject was sold as: 'The Discovery of Achilles' for £3.8s at the artist's posthumous sale in 1735. At the British Museum is a staircase design on the theme of Achilles's story, which includes this episode. It was acquired as by Thornhill but is here re-attributed to his pupil Thomas Carwitham. Thornhill’s use of red chalk, brown wash and white heightening on a buff coloured paper points to his familiarity and interest in Italian drawing styles. Indeed, when this drawing first appeared at auction it was attributed to Maratti’s pupil, Giuseppe Passeri.