James Barry, Historical Painter

(b. 1741, d. 1806)

Historical Painter

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

James Barry, R.A. Pencil Sketch, taken in church by James Northcote, R.A. In National Gallery of Ireland.

Was born on the 11th October, 1741, in a small cottage in Water Lane, Cork. He was the eldest son of John Barry, a bricklayer or builder, who afterwards commanded a coasting vessel trading between Ireland and England and had a public house on the Quays. His mother was Juliana Rearden. James Barry early evinced a talent for drawing. At school he worked industriously, seldom mixing in the amusements of his schoolfellows, but spending his spare time and his evenings in reading all the books he could borrow, and in drawing and sketching.

At an early age he accompanied his father in a few voyages, when he occupied his time in sketching the coast and drawing figures. He soon gave up the sea, and his father allowed him to follow his inclinations and apply himself to the study of art. He received some help from two herald painters in Cork, and worked incessantly to improve himself, copying prints from books and the engraved cartoons of Raphael, which hung in his father's house.

He was influenced in his enthusiasm for art and his desire to become a painter by the works of the local landscape painter, John Butts (q.v.). "His example and works," he wrote to Dr. Sleigh many years after, "were my first guide, and was what enamoured me with art itself."

One of his earliest efforts was a signboard for his father, which displayed Neptune on one side and a ship on the other; and he also furnished some drawings to a Cork bookseller for a set of fables and tales. As he advanced he devoted himself to painting pictures of religious subjects.

At the age of twenty-two, in 1763, he made his way to Dublin, taking with him a number of his pictures, among them "Æneas escaping from Troy," "Susanna and the Elders," "Daniel in the Lion's Den," "Abraham's Sacrifice," a "Dead Christ," and "St. Patrick baptizing the King of Cashel." This latter picture Barry exhibited before the Dublin Society, and, it is said, was awarded a premium of ten guineas.

The records of the Dublin Society for 1763 are missing, but in "Faulkner's Journal" are given the names of the artists who were successful in the competition for the premiums given by the Dublin Society in that year, and Barry's name is not among them. His picture therefore must have been separately exhibited. It attracted attention, and the artist was eagerly enquired for. "It is my picture," exclaimed young Barry, coming forward in his rough country clothes. "Yours!" "Yes, and I can paint a better." The picture was purchased for the House of Commons and hung there until it perished in the fire in 1792.

Dr. Joseph Fenn Sleigh, a Cork physician, who had befriended and helped the young artist, recommended him to Edmund Burke who was then in Dublin. Burke was struck with the talent shown by him, and a few months later, in 1764, took him with him to London where he introduced him to Sir Joshua Reynolds, "Athenian" Stuart and others of his friends. Barry was much influenced by Stuart's knowledge of classic art and antiquities, and for a time subsisted by making copies in oil of his drawings.

James Barry, R.A. Picture ascribed to J. Opie; in National Gallery of Ireland.

Reynolds took an interest in his preparation for his career, and seems to have taken more trouble in advising him than he did with anyone else. On his advice Barry set out for Italy in February, 1766, being furnished with an allowance by Edmund Burke. He spent a few months in Paris, and arrived in Rome in September. There he remained four years. His studies were chiefly of the antique statues and the frescos of Michel-Angelo, and in Venice he was captivated by the works of Titian. He painted little and never attempted to increase his income by making copies of pictures, but spent his time in drawing from the antique, making the proportions, rather than the structure, of the human figure, his study.

In drawing he used an instrument called a delineator, with which he made diagrams rather than drawings, and established a scale of proportions which, from the smallness of the head and extremities and the largeness of the limbs and trunk, he supposed would give his figures grandeur and power.

While in Rome he began his picture of "Adam and Eve," now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which in the clumsiness of the figures, the absence of any attempt to show the action of the muscles and the want of life-like form, is an example of the result of his formula. From the very outset of his stay abroad his contentious character, his irritable temper and his inability to understand or allow for any views or opinions not in consonance with his own peculiar ideas, brought him into perpetual strife with every one he met.

Both Burke and Reynolds gave him earnest and friendly advice. "Believe me, my dear Barry," wrote Burke, "that the arms with which the ill dispositions of the world are to be combated, and the qualities by which it is to be reconciled to us and we reconciled to it, are moderation, gentleness, and a little indulgence to others and a great deal of distrust of ourselves, which are not qualities of a mean spirit, as some may probably think, but virtues of a great and noble kind."

Reynolds wrote him a long letter full of friendly counsel, but all such was wasted; Barry's narrow perceptions and perverted mind made him incapable of taking advice, which he only resented.

In 1770 he set out on his return to England. He visited on his way Florence, Turin, Bologna and other cities, and was made a member of the Clementine Academy, and for it he painted his picture of "Philoctetes in the Isle of Lemnos."

James Barry's house in Castle Street, London. From "European Magazine"

He arrived in London in 1771, full of ambition and a high opinion of his own powers, but without the real training or the technical equipment to enable him to carry out his lofty ideals. Though young and inexperienced as a painter he had confidence in his own powers. In a letter he says: "I go out with poor hopes and, I think, a melancholy prospect enough; yet this arises rather from my fears of the taste of the public than of the knowledge I have of myself."

He sent his "Adam and Eve," painted in Rome, to the Academy and next year, 1772, his "Venus rising from the Sea," and "Medea making her Incantations after the Murder of her Children." He was made an Associate, and in the following year, when he exhibited his "Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida," a Member. He contributed each year down to 1776, when the criticisms upon his picture of "The Death of General Wolfe" so angered him that he thenceforth ceased to exhibit. In this work the figures were represented nude, and it was probably intended as a protest against West's picture of the same subject where the personages represented were clothed in the costumes and uniforms of the period, considered by Barry as a degradation of art.

In 1772 he addressed a letter to the Duke of Richmond proposing that St. Paul's should be decorated by the Academicians. "I had long set my heart upon it," he wrote, "as the only means of establishing a solid manly taste for real art in the place of our trifling, contemptible passion for the daubing of little things—portraits of dogs, landscapes, things in which the mind, which is the soul of true art, has no concern, that have hitherto only stood to disgrace us all over Europe." The Royal Academy adopted the proposal in 1773, but it was ultimately rejected.

In 1775 he published "An Inquiry into the real or imaginary Obstacles to the Arts in England," in answer to Winckelmann and others, in which he contended that art in England must be devoted to historic composition. In 1777 came his offer to execute with his own hand the proposed decorations in the great room of the Society of Arts in the Adelphi. His offer was accepted, and he began the undertaking in July. On the 28th April, 1783, the Society voted him its thanks on the completion of the work, and subsequently voted him fifty guineas, and in 1798 two hundred guineas and its gold medal "in testimony of his public zeal and eminent abilities manifested in the series of Pictures in the Great Room of the Society."

During the time he toiled at the work—nearly seven years—he provided himself with the barest means of subsistence by working at night, after his day's labour, in drawing and designing for the print-sellers, and is said to have lived chiefly on bread and apples. By the public exhibition of his pictures in the Adelphi in 1783 and 1784, he cleared £503. His work on the walls of the great room in the Adelphi consist of six pictures, each eleven feet six inches high; two of them forty-two feet long, and four fifteen feet two inches. The subject he strove to illustrate was "Human Culture," and the pictures were intended to "illustrate one great maxim or moral truth, viz., the obtaining of happiness, as well individual as public, depends upon cultivating the human faculties." The six pictures are:

  1. The Story of Orpheus reclaiming Mankind from a Savage State.
  2. A Grecian Harvest Home, or Thanksgiving to Ceres and Bacchus.
  3. The Victors of Olympus.
  4. Navigation, or the Triumph of the Thames.
  5. The Distribution of Premiums by the Society of Arts.
  6. Elysium and Tartarus, or the State of Final Retribution.

Barry issued a pamphlet in 1783 explaining the pictures, "An Account of a Series of Pictures in the Great Room of the Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, at the Adelphi," 8vo, which contained extravagant praise of his own work and strictures on Sir Joshua Reynolds and others. The pictures embody the labour of his life in Art and the exposition of the principles which, he contended, were the only correct ones, and which his own powers would enable him to carry out. It cannot be said that they succeed in making his theories comprehensible or in justifying his pretensions to be a great artist: as we look upon the pictures we feel that Barry's struggle to be great was hopeless, and that his brush was unable to carry out what his mind had conceived.

The size of the works, the seriousness with which they are conceived, and a certain grandeur in the composition of some of them impress us; but the composition and grouping is often confused and the figures in motion are, like most of Barry's figures, devoid of movement and of true form and construction. This is specially noticeable in "The Victors of Olympus," which, though grandly conceived and executed in a bold but simple manner, fails in the draughtsmanship of the figures. "The heroes of the foot-race, the wrestlers and boxers look," as Redgrave says, "big and boneless, mere sacks of flesh." But the group of Diagoras borne by his children, and the Racer and his horse are effective and drawn with spirit. The "Elysium" is impressive, perhaps the finest of the series; the Great Angel in it is a fine figure; but "Navigation, or the Triumph of the Thames," is unintelligible without the explanation in the pamphlet, and Drake, Raleigh, Cabot and Cooke in full costume, with Dr. Burney in coat and wig, bobbing about in the Thames and sporting with naked and ungraceful nymphs and nereids amid the waves, make the picture ridiculous.

From the very outset of his connection with the Academy Barry's detestable temper and bitter tongue involved him in continual dissensions with his brother artists. In 1782 he was appointed Professor of Painting, but was unable for two years to prepare his series of lectures. When Reynolds made some allusion to the delay Barry retorted, shaking his fist in the President's face: "If I had no more to do in the course of my lectures than produce such poor mistaken stuff as your Discourses, I should soon have them ready for reading."

Birth-place of James Barry, in Water Lane, Cork (the house with the figures of two women). Wood-cut in Hall's "Ireland."

His lectures were full of invective and scurrilous abuse of his fellow Academicians, and when a thief broke into his house and made away with his savings of £400 he is said to have placarded his door with a notice that the theft was committed by the thirty-nine Academicians! The constant repetition of insults and accusations, and his "Letter to the Dilettanti Society" in 1797, in which he spoke in bitter terms of his opponents and of his fellow-members, drove the Academy to appoint a committee of inquiry into his conduct, and on its report Barry was removed from the Professorship of Painting, and afterwards expelled from the Academy.

For the rest of his life he was occupied in painting his large picture of "Pandora," and supported himself chiefly by the sale of his engravings from the Adelphi pictures, boldly but coarsely etched, which he sold for six guineas the set. For twenty years he lived in Castle Street, Oxford Street, in a house with broken windows, with hardly a bed, in solitude, poverty and squalor. Shee, when he came to London in 1798, waited on Barry with a letter of introduction, and thus describes the painter in his dirty, disordered room: "Conceive a little, ordinary man, not in the most graceful dishabille, a dirty shirt, without any cravat, his neck open and a tolerable length of beard, his stockings, not of the purest white in the world, hanging about his heels, sitting at a small table in the midst of this chaos of artificial confusion, etching a plate from one of his own designs—the whole, I think, would furnish a scene worthy of the pencil of a Hogarth." He lived aloof from everyone, and his brutal manner, his temper and violent language, repelled those willing to befriend and serve him. His ordinary language was coarse and interspersed with oaths, but he could when he chose speak with dignity and impressiveness, and in all his moods he carried the conviction that, notwithstanding his violence and his undisciplined mind, he held his theories and pursued his work with unselfish and single-minded purpose.

In 1805 the Society of Arts raised £1,000 with which they purchased for the painter an annuity of £120 from Sir Robert Peel; but Barry did not live to receive the first instalment. On the 6th February, 1806, he was seized with an attack of pleuritic fever in a French eating-house in Wardour Street which he frequented. He was carried to his house, but some boys had plugged the keyhole with dirt and the door could not be opened. He was then taken to the house of his friend, Joseph Bonomi, the architect, in Titchfield Street, and there, after lingering for some days, he died on the 22nd February, 1806. Brought up as a Roman Catholic by his mother, although his father was a Protestant, he always adhered to that faith and was attended in his last illness by Bishop Milner. His body was taken to the Adelphi and lay in state in the Great Room of the Society of Arts, surrounded with the pictures he had painted; and he was buried in the crypt of St. Paul's. His funeral expenses were defrayed by Sir Robert Peel, who also erected a tablet to his memory.

A sale of his pictures, several of them unfinished, which were in his house at the time of his death, was held at Christie's on 10th May, 1807. On the house No. 36 Castle Street is a tablet recording his residence there.

Besides the pictures in the Adelphi, Barry painted the following:

Portrait of Himself, with portraits of his fellow students, Paine the architect, and Lefevre, a French artist, in the background. [National Portrait Gallery.] Painted in Rome in 1767. Artist's Sale, 1807.

Portrait of Himself. [Victoria and Albert Museum.]

Portrait of Himself, in one of the pictures of the Society of Arts, in character of Trimanthes, a Greek artist, sitting at the base of a statue of Hercules and holding the picture of "Cyclops and the Satyrs." Engraved by J. Heath for vol. xxii of "Transactions of the Society of Arts," 1804; by W. C. Edwards for Cunningham's "Lives," 1830, and also, bust only, by Ridley and Holl for "European Magazine," April, 1806.

Portrait of Himself crushing Envy. Artist's sale, 1807.

Portrait of the Artist's Mother. [Society of Arts.]

Lord Baltimore giving freedom to the Red Indians. Lent to the Whitechapel Ex., 1901, by H. B. Wheatley.

Joseph Baretti. R.A., 1773. Artist's sale, 1807.

Dr. Brocklesby. Artist's sale, 1807.

Edmund Burke. [National Gallery of Ireland.] Painted for Burke's friend, Dr. Brocklesby, but never delivered to him. R.A., 1774. Artist's sale, 1807, for nine guineas.

Richard Burke, brother of Edmund Burke. Unfinished. Artist's sale, 1807.

Charles Butler, engraved in stipple by R. W. Sievier, 1817.

Edward Hooper, Vice-President of the Society of Arts. Engraved by W. Evans for "Transactions of the Society of Arts," 1796.

Samuel Johnson. Unfinished. Artist's sale, 1807, for £31 10. [National Portrait Gallery.]

Hugh, first Duke of Northumberland. [Duke of Northumberland, Sion House.]

Christopher Nugent, m.d. Signed and dated 1772. R.A., 1773. Lent by T. Moreton Wood to South Kensington in 1867.

Lord Petre. Artist's sale, 1807.

Duke of Richmond. Artist's sale, 1807.

Lord Romney. Artist's sale, 1807.

Duchess of Rutland. Artist's sale, 1807.

Sir George Saville. Unfinished. Artist's sale, 1807.

George, Prince of Wales, in the character of St. George. Artist's sale, 1807. Ex. Cork, 1852.

Adam and Eve. R.A., 1771. Painted in Rome. [Victoria and Albert Museum.] Belongs to the Society of Arts.

The Temptation of Adam. [Society of Arts.] Artist's sale, 1807, for £105.

Scenery in the vicinity of Wicklow. Painted in Ireland. Artist's sale, 1807.

Venus rising from the Sea. R.A., 1772. Engraved in mezzotint by J. R. Smith.

Medea making her Incantations after the Murder of her Children. R.A., 1772.

The Education of Achilles. R.A., 1772.

Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida. R.A., 1773. Collection of J. W. Spread, Christie's, 27th April, 1898. Etched by the artist.

Lear with the body of Cordelia. [H. Tyrrell Smith, Frascati, Blackrock, County Dublin.] R.A., 1774. Was in the Shakespeare Gallery. Christie's, collection of John Green, Dell Lodge, Blackheath, 1830. Ex. Dublin, 1873, C. Bianconi. Sold at Bennett's, Dublin, about 1910. Etched by the artist.

Antiochus and Stratonice. RA., 1774. Bought by the Duke of Richmond in 1775.

Mercury inventing the Lyre. R.A., 1774. Artist's sale, 1807.

Death of Adonis. R.A., 1775. "Very strange and glaring" (Walpole). Ex. Dublin, 1853, by W. Anthony.

Pandora. R.A., 1775. ? the sketch in brown, 1 foot 6 inches by 2 feet 3 ½, done in Rome and mentioned by Waagen as in the possession of J. Tulloch, Montague Place, Russell Square.

Pandora, or the Heathen Eve. One of the contemplated series of "Theology," begun after the Adelphi pictures; 18 by 10 feet. Was unfinished at the time of the artist's death, and was in his sale in 1807. Described in the catalogue as "his grand and justly celebrated chef d'oeuvre." Appears to have been bought in for £24.1 10s., and remained in Christie's stores until 1846, when it was again put up and bought by a dealer for 11 ½ guineas. Etched by the artist.

Death of General Wolfe. R.A., 1776. Walpole curtly notes of this picture, "Bad."

Portraits in the characters of Ulysses and his companions escaping from the cave of Polyphemus. R.A., 1776. "Good colouring in the style of the Old Masters " (Walpole).

Dido and Æneas (unfinished). The first picture Barry painted in Rome. Artist's sale, 1807.

Jachimo rising from the chest in Imogen's chamber. Collection of John Green, Dell Lodge, Blackheath, Christie's, 1830.

Burial of Jacob in the cave of Macphelah. Lent to the R.D.S. Ex., 1861, by J. Journeaux.

Jupiter beguiling Juno. Artist's sale, 1807.

The Entombment. Ex. Dublin, 1853, by C. Coppinger, Q.C. Perhaps the "Dead Christ" painted by Barry in Cork.

Christ casting the Devils from the man possessed. Collection of Joseph Hines, sold in Dublin, 28th May, 1851, for £5.

Warrior at riverside. Ex. Dublin, 1873, by R. E. Lynn, M.R.I.A.

Rosamund. Engraved in mezzotint by W. Smith, 1776.

Venus Anadyomene. Painted on his return from Italy. Artist's sale, 1807.

Philoctetes in the Isle of Lemnos. Painted for, and presented to the Clementine Academy, Bologna, in 1770. Etched by Barry; also engraved by Rosaspina in 1785.

Narcissus looking at himself in the Water. Painted about 1774.

Chiron and Achilles. In possession of the Earl of Buchan in 1809.

Cymbeline. [Royal Dublin Society, Kildare Street.]

The Fallen Angels. Sketch. [Soane Museum.]

Adam's Detection. Sketch. [Soane Museum.]

Besides his etchings of some of the foregoing pictures Barry did a number from his Adelphi series, and included some figures he had omitted in the paintings. He also etched the following:

Job reproved by his friends. Dedicated to Edmund Burke.

Polemon. Dedicated to C. J. Fox.

Jonah; after Michel-Angelo. Dedicated to the Duke of Bridgewater.

The King delivering the patent of their office to the Judges.

The Princesses patronizing Education at Windsor. Both the latter were intended for additional pictures for the Society of Arts.

Milton Series: The Archangel Michael triumphing over Satan, a subject he had chosen for the decoration of St. Paul's. Satan risen from the fiery gulf hurling defiance at the vault of Heaven. Battle of Satan and Death. Temptation of Adam. Adam and Eve after the Fall. Milton dictating to Elwood the Quaker.

He also did a number of small prints.

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