Barry, James (1741-1806) (DNB00)
BARRY, JAMES (1741–1806), painter, was the eldest son of John and Juliana Barry, and was born on 11 Oct. 1741. His mother's maiden name was Rœrden, and both his parents are said to have been well descended, but his father was brought up as a builder, afterwards commanded a vessel which traded between Ireland and England, and kept a public-house on the quays at Cork.
James went to sea with his father for a few voyages, but soon showed a preference for an artist's career. He painted his father's sign with Neptune on one side, and a ship of that name on the other; obtained some help from two heraldic painters, and copied prints, including those from the cartoons of Raphael, upon the walls of his father's house. His education does not seem to have been neglected; and at school he was regarded as a prodigy of knowledge by his fellows. To Dr. Sleigh, of Cork, he used to say, he was indebted for whatever education he had. The date when he left Cork is not known, but he studied under West, of Dublin, an able teacher of the figure.
Cunningham mentions some ambitious oil paintings as executed before he left Cork, but the first picture by which he attracted attention was 'The Conversion by St. Patrick of the King of Cashel,' which was sent to an exhibition held at Dublin by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, &c., in 1763. This procured him the immediate friendship and protection of Burke, who brought him to London in the following year, and introduced him to Athenian Stuart, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and others of his friends. In February 1766 he started for Italy on the advice of Reynolds, and with an allowance from Burke and his brother. He remained in Paris till September, and then proceeded to Rome, where he stayed about four years, returning to England in 1770. In the third year of his residence at Rome he made an excursion to Naples, and through the whole period of his absence maintained an interesting correspondence with Burke, full of acute and original criticism. The contentiousness of his disposition, however, his contempt for the dilettanti, and his indignation at the tricks of dealers in pictures and antiquities, engaged him. in perpetual strife with nearly every one he met, including his brother artists. This conduct drew from Burke much kind and noble remonstrance, which had unfortunately no lasting effect. In these quarrels Barry spent much of his time, and his studies were discursive and ill-regulated. He adopted a mechanical means (a delineator) for copying from the antique, made few studies from the old masters, and painted but two original works: One of these, 'Adam and Eve,' he brought home unfinished; the other was 'Philoctetes in the Isle of Lemnos.' He grew fastidious in his taste, confining his admiration almost exclusively to the antique and a few of the greatest painters of Italy . On his way home he wrote: 'Rubens, Rembrandt, Vandyke, Teniers, and Schalken are without the pale of my church; and though I will not condemn them, yet I must hold no intercourse with them.'
He arrived in London with a temper little calculated to assist his progress in the world, and a skill quite inadequate to sustain his high pretensions in art. But he succeeded in attracting a good deal of notice, and much was expected of him. His 'Philoctetes' had gained him election as a member of the Clementine Academy at Bologna. Sir Joshua Reynolds thought highly of his talents, and Burke received him warmly. He exhibited 'Adam and Eve' in 1771, and in 1772 'Venus rising from the Sea,' 'Medea making her Incantations,' and 'Education of Achilles.' The last was bought by Mr. Palmer. He was elected an associate in this year, and a full member of the Royal Academy the year after, when he exhibited 'Jupiter and Juno' and two portraits. In 1774 his pictures were 'Lear and Cordelia' for Boydell's Shakespeare, 'Antiochus and Stratonice' (bought by the Duke of Richmond), 'Mercury inventing the Lyre,' and a portrait of Burke; in 1775 'Death of Adonis' and a drawing for a picture of 'Pandora;' and in 1776 (the last year in which his name appears in the catalogues) 'Death of General Wolfe' and 'Portraits, as Ulysses and his Companions escaping from Polypheme.' The reason given for his ceasing to exhibit at the Royal Academy is his disgust and anger at the reception accorded to his ‘Death of General Wolfe,’ in which he represented all the figures nude. In 1771 Benjamin West had dared to paint the same scene in a natural manner, with uniforms and hair dressed à la mode, and Barry's picture was doubtless intended as a protest against what he thought a degradation of art.
Barry soon after his return attracted attention not only by his pictures, but by his pen and his projects for great mural decorations. It was in 1772, according to a letter he wrote to the Duke of Richmond, that he first proposed to the academicians to decorate St. Paul's with historical pictures at their own expense. ‘I had long set my heart upon it, 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 inconsequential things—portraits of dogs, landscapes, &c., things in which the mind, which is the soul of true art, has no concern—that have hitherto only served to disgrace us all over Europe.’ The Royal Academy made the proposal to the chapter in 1773, and selected the artists, of whom Barry was one, to carry it out, but it was ultimately rejected. A similar project, in 1774, to decorate the new room of the Society of Arts in the Adelphi also fell through.
‘Having,’ says Cunningham, ‘failed in painting the nation into a love of the historic art, he resolved to make a last effort, and if possible write them into it.’ In 1775 he published ‘An Inquiry into the Real or Imaginary Obstructions to the Arts in England,’ in which he demolished, with much force and eloquence, the opinions of Winckelmann and other foreign critics, that the genius of the English was limited by the climate of their country, and also urged his own theory, that art, before it could be honourable in England, must devote itself to historic composition.
In 1777 Barry offered to execute, with his own hand, the whole of the proposed decoration at the Society of Arts, ‘upon a much larger and more comprehensive plan,’ without payment, the society to find him in canvas, colours, and models. ‘My intention is,’ wrote Barry to Sir George Saville, ‘to carry the painting uninterruptedly round the room (as has been done in the great rooms at the Vatican and Farnese galleries), by which the expense of frames will be saved to the society.’ The offer was accepted, and the enormous undertaking was commenced in July 1777. On 26 April 1783 the society voted him their thanks on accepting the finished work. As an example of high aim, of disinterestedness and courage, this achievement of Barry's is worthy of renown. Its magnitude alone entitles it to notice. It is composed of six pictures, 11 feet 6 inches in height. Two of them are each 42 feet in length, and with the others make up a total length of 140 feet. The subject is ‘Human Culture,’ and the pictures, according to his own description, are intended ‘to illustrate one great maxim or moral truth, viz. that the obtaining of happiness, as well individual as public, depends upon cultivating the human faculties. We begin with man in a savage state, full of inconvenience, imperfection, and misery; and we follow him through several gradations of culture and happiness, which, after our probationary state here, are finally attended with beatitude or misery. The first is the story of Orpheus; the second a Harvest Home, or Thanksgiving to Ceres and Bacchus; the third the Victors of Olympia; the fourth Navigation, or the Triumph of the Thames; the fifth the Distribution of Premiums in the Society of Arts; and the sixth Elysium, or the state of Final Retribution.’ At the time Barry undertook this work he had but sixteen shillings in his pocket, and whilst he was engaged upon it he lived chiefly on bread and apples, and had often to sketch or engrave for the printsellers at night to supply himself with the barest means of subsistence. ‘I have,’ he wrote in 1773 with reference to the St. Paul's scheme, ‘taken great pains to form myself for this kind of quixotism. To this end I have contracted and simplified my cravings and wants, and brought them into a very narrow compass;’ and with reference to his proposition to the Society of Arts, and his expressed opinions about ‘high art,’ he wrote: ‘I thought myself bound in duty to the country, to art, and to my own character, to try whether my abilities would enable me to exhibit the proof as well as the argument.’ Barry succeeded in his quixotism, but failed in his art. The pictures were absurdly extolled by some, and Boswell makes Dr. Johnson say: ‘Whatever the hand may have done, the mind has done its part. There is a grasp of mind there you find nowhere else.’ This is an overestimate of their intellectual quality; but we may all agree with this sentence in one of Dr. Johnson's letters: ‘You must think with some esteem of Barry for the comprehension of his design.’
The Society of Arts voted Barry sums of 50 guineas and 200 guineas and their gold medal. They also allowed their room to be thrown open for the public exhibition of the pictures in 1783 and 1784, by which he cleared 503l. 2s. Barry also obtained profit from the engravings of these works, which he executed in a bold but unrefined manner. For these the price was six guineas a set. He printed and sold them himself. It is satisfactory to be able to add that his connection with the Society of Arts was unmarked by any of those quarrels which embittered his life. ‘The general tenour of this society's conduct in the carrying on of that work,’ he says in his ‘Letter to the Dilettanti Society,’ ‘has been great, exemplary, and really worthy the best age of civilised society.’ A full account of the pictures, which have been several times cleaned, is given in a pamphlet by H. Trueman Wood, secretary to the Society of Arts (1880). The society also possesses the plates of many etchings by Barry, including copies from the six pictures, with variations.
Barry's career as an artist practically ended with the completion of this great work. In continuation of it he offered to complete two pictures or designs, ‘George III delivering the Patents to the Judges of their Offices for life’ and ‘The Queen patronising Education at Windsor.’ He withdrew the offer when an objection was made to replacing the portraits previously occupying the intended spaces; and the only other picture on which he appears to have been engaged during the remainder of his life was ‘Pandora, or the Heathen Eve,’ an enormous and, according to report, a very unsuccessful work, which remained unfinished at his death.
In 1782 Barry was appointed professor of painting to the Royal Academy, an honour which proved disastrous to him. His enthusiasm for historic art was combined with a contempt for all those who followed what he deemed the lower branches of the profession, especially those who made a large profit, like Sir Joshua Reynolds, out of portrait painting. This feeling, already strongly expressed in his ‘Inquiry into the Real and Imaginary Obstructions,’ &c., of 1775, grew into something like a mania, and was stimulated by some observations of the president on his delay in preparing his lectures—a delay, it may be observed, pardonable on account of the great demands then made on his time and thought by his great work at the Society of Arts. ‘If,’ Barry is said to have retorted, clenching his fist at Sir Joshua, ‘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.’ The pamphlet which Barry published in 1783 to explain his pictures in the Adelphi contained extravagant praise of his own work and sarcastic strictures on Sir Joshua and others; and when he began his lectures, which was in March 1784, he made them vehicles of invective against his brother academicians. So convinced did he become of the malignity of his enemies, that when he lost a sum of money which he had saved he did not hesitate to insinuate ‘that this robbery was not committed by mere thieves, but by some limbs of a motley, shameless combination, some of whom passed for my friends;’ and he told Southey that if he went out in the evening the academicians would waylay and murder him.
The ill-feeling between Sir Joshua and Barry did not, however, last for ever. When Reynolds quarrelled with the Academy, Barry took his part with vehemence, and ‘for several years,’ says Fryer, ‘before Sir Joshua's death this hostility had ceased.’ When this took place (1792), Barry came to the Academy and pronounced a glowing eulogium upon Reynolds as a man and an artist. But his war with the Academy went on, and his anger culminated in a letter to the Dilettanti Society, in which he loaded the academicians with accusations and insults. This was in 1799, and the Academy acted hastily. They caused charges of various kinds to be drawn up against Barry, and, without giving him any opportunity for defence, not only deprived him of his professor's chair, but expelled him from the Academy. Moreover, they obtained the sanction of the king to their proceedings. In vain Barry republished his letter, with an appendix, ‘respecting the matters lately agitated between the Academy and the professor of painting.’ Equally in vain he appealed to the king by a letter and petition, which were published in the ‘Morning Herald’ 3 Dec. 1799. His career was over.
He was now fifty-eight years of age, and few details are recorded of the last seven or eight years of his life. He had long lived a solitary life in Castle Street, Oxford Street, without a servant of any kind or a decent bed. His house was ruinous, and he was negligent in person and dress. At one time, after a severe illness, he is said by Southey to have ‘cast his slough,’ to have ‘appeared decently dressed, in his own grey hair, and mixed in such society as he liked.’ But in 1799 many of his old friends had passed away. Dr. Brocklesby, who introduced him to Dr. Johnson's Club at the Essex Head, was dead, and Dr. Johnson too. Burke also, whose friendship, though cooled, never seems to have failed, was dead also; and musing over his picture of ‘Pandora’ and the great series of designs on the ‘Progress of Theology,’ of which the ‘Pandora’ was to have been the first, seems to have been the main employment of his hours. The asperity of his manners is said to have softened in these last years. Although never known to want or to borrow money, his squalid appearance and mode of life suggested an income even smaller than he possessed, and in May 1805 a meeting was called at the Society of Arts, and 1,000l. was subscribed for his benefit. With this sum an annuity of 120l. was purchased of Sir Robert Peel, to which the Earl of Buchan added 10l. But Barry did not live to receive the first payment. On 6 Feb. 1806 he was seized with pleuritic fever at a French eating-house in Wardour Street which he frequented, and he was taken to his house in a coach. 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, Mr. Joseph Bonomi, the architect, where he died on 22 Feb., attended by a priest of the Roman catholic church, of which he was an ardent member. His body lay in state, surrounded by his great pictures, in the room of the Society of Arts, and was buried in the crypt of St. Paul's. Sir Robert Peel, who had profited by the sale of the annuity, gave 200l. to pay for his funeral and to raise a tablet to his memory.
The story of Barry tells his character so plainly that it need only be added that though violent he was not morose in temper, and that his aims, though often mistaken, were never mean. He carried independence to such an extreme that, when invited to dine at a private house, he would leave on the cloth sums (variously stated at 1s. 2d., 1s. 6d., and 2s.) to pay for his entertainment. Once Sir William Beechey playfully objected that he had not paid for his wine. ‘Shu, shu,’ said Barry, ‘if you can't afford it why do you give it? Painters have no business with wine!’ His society is said to have been agreeable, his stock of entertaining stories large. In person he described himself as ‘a pock-pitted, hard-featured little fellow.’ His face was naturally grave and saturnine, which gave uncommon sweetness to his smile and great fierceness to his anger.
Two portraits of Barry, by himself, belong to the nation; one is at the South Kensington Museum (Parsons bequest), and the other in the National Gallery. The latter was bought at the artist's sale by Mr. S. W. Singer. In 1777 Barry published an etching of ‘The Fall of Satan,’ the design which he had prepared for the decoration of St. Paul's, and among his other etchings or engravings are ‘Job reproved by his Friends,’ dedicated to Mr. Burke, and ‘The Conversion of Polemon,’ dedicated to Mr. Fox. He also engraved Michael Angelo's ‘Jonah,’ and dedicated the plate to the Duke of Bridgewater. His ‘Philoctetes’ was twice engraved, once by himself and once by Rasaspina of Bologna, and J. R. Smith engraved five designs of his from ‘Paradise Lost’ and one of ‘Milton dictating to Ellwood.’ His ‘Venus rising from the Sea’ was engraved by Valentine Green; and he published etchings both of this picture and ‘Jupiter and Juno,’ and a series of designs of ‘St. Michael.’
Barry's paintings have not sustained their reputation. The great ‘Pandora,’ which fetched 230 guineas at his sale, brought only 11½ guineas in 1846; ‘Mercury inventing the Lyre’ sold for 1l. 7s. at the sale of the elder Nollekens in 1823–4. His ‘Adam and Eve,’ which belongs to the Society of Arts, may now be seen at the South Kensington Museum. Some of his lectures have been published, together with others by Opie and Fuseli, in a volume edited by R. N. Wornum in 1848. Besides the literary works of Barry already mentioned, he published a letter to the president of the Society of Arts in 1793.[Barry's Works, with Memoir by Dr. Fryer; Redgrave's Century of Painters; Redgrave's Dictionary; Edwards's Anecdotes; Nollekens and his Times; Cunningham's Lives, edited by Mrs. Heaton; Pye's Patronage of British Art; Reminiscences of Henry Angelo; Annals of the Fine Arts; Academy Catalogues; S. T. Davenport, in Journal of Society of Arts, xviii. 803; H. T. Wood's Note on the Pictures by James Barry, &c. (1880).]