George Barret, Landscape Painter

(b. 1732, d. 1784)

Landscape Painter

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

George Barret, R.A. Sketch by John Greenwood; in British Museum.

Was born in the Liberties of Dublin, probably in 1732, the son of a clothier. He was for a time an apprentice to a stay-maker, but afterwards became a pupil of Robert West in the drawing-school in George's Lane, where, in 1747, he was one of the boys who distinguished themselves at the annual examination for prizes held by the Dublin Society. During his pupillage he found employment in colouring prints for Thomas Silcock, the print-seller in Nicholas Street,* and was afterwards for some time a drawing-master in a school. Coming under the notice of Edmund Burke, he was encouraged to study from nature, and spent much of his time in sketching the scenery at Powerscourt and the Dargle.

He was living in Hog Hill in 1761, and from there he issued a proposal in 1762 for publishing, by subscription, four landscapes painted by himself, to be engraved under his own direction by John Dixon (q.v.). These were "Powerscourt House and the adjacent country," "A View in the Dargle called the Castle Rock," "A View in the Dargle called the Dahool," and "The Waterfall in Powerscourt Park." The proposal, however, does not appear to have met with any response, and the views were not engraved. Finding little encouragement in his art, and confident in his own powers he determined to try his fortune in London, and arrived there in 1762, bringing with him his two landscapes, "View of the Waterfall at Powerscourt" and "View in the Dargle," which he sent, with others, to the exhibition of the Society of Artists in 1764. In the same year his large "Landscape with figures," shown at the Free Society, gained the premium of fifty pounds given by the Society of Arts for the best landscape.

James Barry, R.A., in a letter to Dr. Sleigh, undated, but apparently written in 1765, says: "My friend and fellow-countryman, Barret, does no small honour to landscape painting among us; I have seen nothing to match his last year's premium picture"; and then goes on to compare unfavourably Claude's treatment of skies to that of Barret. Barret continued to exhibit at the Society of Artists each year to 1768, contributing seventeen pictures in all; and also at the Free Society in 1779 and 1782. His works, from their originality, were universally admired, commissions flowed in upon him, and he received large sums for his works while Richard Wilson, a veteran in art, could hardly exist by the sale of his landscapes. Lord Dalkeith, it is said, paid him fifteen hundred pounds for three pictures, a large sum in those days. The Rev. John Lock, of Norbury Park, near Leatherhead, was a warm admirer of his genius, and erected a large room in his house which Barret decorated, painting in oil on the actual surface of the wall the scenery of the lakes of Cumberland, somewhat in the style of a panorama.

Barret was actively instrumental in the foundation of the Royal Academy, was one of its original members, and exhibited there regularly until 1782. He was earning two thousand a year by his profession; but he spent more than he made and was reduced to bankruptcy. Through the influence of his old friend, Edmund Burke, he was given the lucrative post of Master Painter to Chelsea Hospital. He resided for some years in Orchard Street, Portman Square, but in 1772 he removed—for the sake of his health, as he suffered from asthma—to Westbourne Green, "at the upper end of a field adjacent to old Paddington Church," as Angelo tells us in his "Reminiscences." There he spent the rest of his life and painted some of his best pictures. He died on the 29th May, 1784, and was buried at Paddington Church.

Barret's pictures are painted with vigorous dexterity and directness; they are well composed and arranged, but, while we admire their execution, their formality and conventional treatment fail to touch us. His later work shows the influence of Richard Wilson, and pictures painted during the last decade of his life are not unfrequently ascribed to that painter. Although himself a good painter of animals, the cattle, as well as figures, in his landscapes were occasionally put in by Sawrey Gilpin. He did some good studies from nature in pencil and also executed a few etchings, including a "View in the Dargle," a "View of Hawarden" dated 1773, and a large "Landscape with Figures." Five of Barret's early pictures belonged to Lord Powerscourt, and were sold at Bennett's, Dublin, in April, 1912.

Twelve large landscapes, painted about 1767, are at Welbeck; "The Long Walk, Windsor, with mares and foals," formerly in Lord Albermarle's collection, is now at Windsor, and "Virginia Water, with the Duke of Cumberland in his Carriage," was in the Angerstein collection sold in 1883. Two landscapes, a "View of Castletown" and a "View near Leixlip," belong to Captain Conolly at Castletown, County Kildare, and a "Classical Landscape" and two others to Mr. Kirkpatrick at Donacomper, County Kildare. Two pictures are in the Royal Dublin Society's House in Kildare Street, and two examples of his early style, "Powerscourt Waterfall" and a "View near Ovoca," are in the National Gallery of Ireland. "A Dog belonging to Lord Edward Bentinck," exhibited in 1768, was engraved by James Watson; and five views were engraved in Watts' series of "Seats of the Nobility and Gentry."

Angelo, in his "Reminiscences" (I, 229), says that Barret was "well-informed, an enthusiast in his art, and a delightful companion." His portrait appears in Zoffany's picture of "The Royal Academy in 1773," now in the Royal collection. Barret married in Dublin in 1757 Frances Percy. At his death his family was left in straitened circumstances and was assisted by the Royal Academy, which granted his widow a pension of thirty pounds in 1802. His sons, Joseph, James and George, were artists, as was also his daughter.

Joseph Barret was awarded a gold palette by the Society of Arts in 1775 for an ornamental design; but nothing more is known of him. James Barret succeeded his father as Master Painter at Chelsea Hospital. He painted landscapes in water-colour, and was an exhibitor in the Royal Academy from 1785 to 1819. Two water-colours by him are in the British Museum. George Barret, junr., one of the foremost water-colour painters of the English school, was born in Orchard Street, London, in 1767 or early in 1768. He began by painting landscapes in oil, in much the same style as his father; but afterwards became celebrated for his drawings in water-colour, by which he made his reputation. In some qualities these have never been surpassed, excelling in their effects of atmosphere and brilliant sunlight, and full of poetic feeling. He was one of the foundation members of the Old Water-colour Society in 1804, was a large contributor to its exhibitions, and also exhibited in the Royal Academy. He was author of "The Theory and Practice of Water-colour Painting elucidated in a series of Letters," published by Ackermann in 1840.

After a life of incessant labour he died on the 19th March, 1842, at his residence, 162 Devonshire Place, Edgware Road, in his seventy-fifth year, and was buried at St. Mary's, Paddington. He left a widow and two sons and a daughter without any provision, who were relieved by an annuity raised for them by the members of the old Water-colour Society; and nine years afterwards the Society caused a memorial tablet to be placed over the painter's grave, with an inscription written by Copley Fielding.

M. Barret, daughter of George Barret, R.A., was a pupil of Mrs. Mee, the miniature painter. She painted miniatures, and also birds and still life, and died in 1836.

* Thomas Silcock, "an eminent glazier and printseller," published prints by Miller, Purcell, Spooner and others in Nicholas Street. He moved his business to the Royal Fan in Skinners Row in 1759, and died there in February, 1765. His wife, a Miss Mary King of Skinners Row, whom he married in December, 1762, died on 17th February, 1763.

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