Barry, James

, an English artist of considerable fame, was the eldest son of John Barry and Julian Roerden, and was born in Cork, Oct. 11, 1741. His father was a builder, and in the latter part of his life a coasting trader between England and Ireland. James was at first destined to this last business, but as he disliked it, his father suffered him to pursue his inclination, which led him to drawing and reading. His early education he received in the schools at Cork, where he betrayed some symptoms of that peculiar frame of mind which became more conspicuous in his maturer years. His studies were desultory, directed by no regular plan, yet he accumulated a considerable stock of knowledge. As his mother was a zealous Roman Catholic, he fell into the company of some priests, who recommended the study of polemical divinity, and probably all of one class, for this ended in his becoming a staunch Roman Catholic. | Although the rude beginnings of his art cannot be traced, there is reason to ^hink that at the age of seventeen he had attempted oil-painting, and between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two he executed a picture, the subject “St. Patrick landing on the sea-coast of Cashell,” which he exhibited in Dublin. This procured him some reputation, and, what was afterwards of much importance, the acquaintance of the illustrious Edmund Burke. During his stay in Dublin, he probably continued to cultivate his art, but no particular work can now be discovered. After a residence of seven or eight months in Dublin, an opportunity offered of accompanying some part of Mr. Burke‘ s family to London, which he eagerly embraced. This took place in 1764, and on his arrival, Mr. Burke recommended nim to his friends, and procured for him his first employment, that of copying in oil drawings by the Athenian Stuart. In 1765, Mr. Burke and his other friends furnished him with the means of visiting Italy, where he surveyed the noble monuments of art then in that country, with the eye of an acute, and often very just critic, but where, at the same time, his residence was rendered uncomfortable by those unhappy irregularities of temper, which, more or less, obscured all his prospects in life.

After an absence of five years, mostly spent at Rome, he arrived in England in 1771, and claimed the admiration of the public, not unsuccessfully, by his “Venus” and his “Jupiter and Juno,” the former one of his best pictures. In his “Death of Wolfe,” he failed, principally from his introducing naked figures, and he was obliged to yield, somewhat reluctantly, to the more popular picture of Mr. West. This “Death of Wolfe,” which he painted in I "76, was the last he exhibited at the royal academy. About 1774, he conceived an aversion to portrait-painting, from a dread of being confined to the modern costume of dress, which certainly at that time was far less graceful, and less correspondent with the human figure, than at present. It is well known, however, that he violated his own principles in some of the figures introduced in his great work in the society’s rooms in the Adelphi, when he was under no kind of constraint; but this difference between theory and practice was in many instances remarkable in Barry.

When a design was formed of decorating St. Paul’s cathedral with the works of our most eminent painters and | sculptors, Barry was to have been employed, and his subject was “The Jews rejecting Christ, when Pilate entreats his release,” but the scheme was discouraged, and its probable success can now be only a subject of speculation. In 1775, he appeared as an author, in a publication entitled, an “Inquiry into the real and imaginary obstructions to the acquisition of the arts in England,” in answer to Winckleman. In this treatise there are some fanciful opinions, but upon the whole it is the best and most dispassionate of all the productions of his pen, and a masterly defence of the capabilities of English artists under proper encouragement; and it contains many just remarks on that state of public taste which is favourable to the perfection of the art. The same train of ideas has been since pursued by Mr. Shee, in his poetical works; an artist, whose productions of the pencil, great and superior as they are, suggest a doubt whether if he had been a writer, and only a writer, he would not have been the first man of his age, in the philosophy of the art, in exquisite fancy and taste, and that variety of imagery and illustration which belongs only to poets of the higher class.

After the scheme of decorating St. Paul’s had been given up, it was proposed to employ the same artists in decorating the great room in the Adelphi, belonging to the society of arts, but this was refused by the artists themselves, probably because they were to be remunerated in equal shares, by an exhibition of the pictures. We cannot much wonder at their declining a scheme, which promised to reduce them to this kind of level, and would indeed imply an equality in every other respect. Three years afterwards, however, in 1777, Mr. Barry undertook the whole, and his offer was accepted. It would have been singular, indeed, if such an offer had been rejected, as his labour was to be gratuitous. He has been heard to say, that at the time of his undertaking this work, he had only sixteen shillings in his pocket; and that in the prosecution of his labour, he was often after painting all day obliged to sketch or engrave at night some design for the print-sellers, which was to supply him with the means of his frugal subsistence. He has recorded some of his prints as done at this time, such as his Job, dedicated to Mr. Burke; birth of Venus; Polemon; head of lord Chatham; king Lear, &c. | Of his terms with the society, we know only that the choice of subjects was allowed him, and the society was to defray the expence of canvas, colours, and models. In the course of his labours, however, he found that he had been somewhat too disinterested, and wrote a letter to sir George Saville, soliciting such a subscription among the friends of the society as might amount to 100l. a year. He computed that he should finish the whole in two years, and pay back the 200l. to the subscribers by means of an exhibition; but he very candidly added, that if the exhibition should produce nothing, the subscribers would Jose their money. This subscription did not take effect, and the work employed him seven years; at the end of which, the society granted him two exhibitions, and at different periods voted him fifty guineas, their gold medal, and again 200 guineas, and a seat among them. Of this great undertaking, a series of six pictures, representing the progress of society, and civilization among mankind, it has been said “that it surpasses any work which has been executed within these two centuries, and considering the difficulties with which the artist had to struggle, any that is now extant.” As the production of one man, it is undoubtedly entitled to high praise, but it has all Barry’s defects in drawing and colouring, defects the more remarkable, because in his printed correspondence and lectures, his theory on these subjects is accurate and unexceptionable. These pictures were afterwards engraved, but what they produced is not known. In 1792, however, he deposited 700/, in the funds, and to this wealth he never afterwards made any great addition, for he never possessed more than 60l. a year from the funds, a sum barely sufficient to pay the rent and other charges of his house, but as his domestic oeconomy was of the meanest kind, this sum was probably not insufficient.

In 1782, he was elected professor of painting, in room of Mr. Penny, but did not lecture until 1784. His Jectures, now printed, are unquestionably among the best of his writings. He had long meditated an extensive design, that of painting the progress of theology, or, “to delineate the growth of that state of mind which connects man with his Creator, and to represent the misty medium of connection which the Pagan world had with their false Gods, and the union of Jews and Christians with their | true God, by means of revelation.” At the time of his death, he was employed on etchings or designs for this purpose, but made no great progress. In the mean time he published his “Letter to the Dilettanti,” a work which his biographer justly characterises as not quite so tranquil or praise-worthy.

The appointment of professor of painting, honourable as it was, and the duties of which he might have discharged with reputation to himself, became in his hands the source of misfortune and disgrace. Original, and in many respects extremely singular in his opinions, he proposed changes and innovations which could not consistently be complied with, and by these means he often subjected himself to the pain of a refusal. His great object was, to appropriate a fund, accumulated from the receipts of exhibitions, to form a gallery of the old masters, for the use of the pupils. In this, and in many other efforts which he made with the same view, he entirely failed; so that, by continual opposition, he at length rendered himself so obnoxious to the jealousy of his brethren, that early in March 1799, a body of charges was received by the council at the royal academy, against the professor of painting; upon which the following resolution was passed, “that the charges and information were sufficiently important to be laid before the whole body of academicians to be examined; and if they coincide in opinion, the heads of those charges to be then communicated to the professor of painting.” This was intimated to Mr. Barry, by order of the council. On the 19th of March, the academy received the minutes of the council respecting the charges, and referred them to a committee elected for the purpose. The academy met again the 15th of April, to receive the report of the committee, when Mr. Barry arose, and demanded to be furnished with a copy of the report. This being denied, he protested against the injustice of the whole proceeding, and withdrew, declaring in plain terms, that “if they acted in conjunction with his enemies, without giving him the opportunity of answering for himself, and refuting the charges alleged against him, he should be ashamed to belong to the academy.” Having withdrawn, Mr. Barry was removed by a vote from the professor’s chair, and by a subsequent vote, expelled the academy. The whole proceedings were then laid before his majesty, who was pleased to approve them, and Mr, | Barry’s name was accordingly struck off from the roll of academicians.

Soon after this event, the earl of Buchan set on foot a subscription, which amounted to about 1000l. with which his friends purchased an annuity for his life; but his oeath prevented his reaping any benefit from this design. The manner of his death is thus related by his biographer: 44 On the evening of Thurday, Feb. 6, 1806, he was seized as he entered the house where he usually dint-d, with the cold fit of a pleuritic fever, of so intense a degree, that all his faculties were suspended, and he unable to articulate or move. Some cordial was administered to him, and on his coming a little to himself, he was taken in a coach to the door of his own house, which, the keyhole being plugged with dirt and pebbles, as had been often done before, by the malice, or perhaps the roguery of boys in the neighbourhood, it was impossible to open. The night being dark, and he shivering under the progress of his disease, hisfriends thought it advisable to drive away without loss of time to the hospitable mansion of Mr. Bononni. By the kindness of that good family, a bed was procured in a neighbouring house, to which he was immediately conveyed. Here he desired to be left, and locked himself up, unfortunately, for forty hours, without the least medical assistance. What took place in the mean time, he could give but little account of, as he represented himself to be delirious, and only recollected his being tortured with a burning pain in his side, and with difficulty of breathing. In this short time was the deathblow given, which, by the prompt and timely aid of copious bleedings, might have been averted; but without this aid, such had been the re-action of the hot fit succeeding the rigours, and the violence of the inflammation on the pleura, that an effusion of lymph had ’ taken place, as appeared afterwards upon dissection. In the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 8, he rose and crawled forth to relate his complaint to the writer of this account. He was pale, breathless, and tottering, as he entered the room, with a dull pain in his side, a cough short and incessant, and a pulse quick and feeble. Succeeding remedies proved of little avail. With exacerbations and remissions of fever, he lingered to the 22d of February, when he expired." His remains, after lying in state in the great room of the society of arts, Acielphi, was interred in St. Paul’s cathedral, with | solemnity, and the attendance of many of his friends and admirers, among whom was not one artist.

For Barry’s character we may refer to an elaborate article by his biographer. To us it appears that with unquestionable talents, original genius, and strong enthusiasm for his art, he was never able to accomplish what he projected, or to practise all that he professed. Few men appear to have had more correct notions of the principles of art, or to have departed more frequently from them. His ambition during life was to excel no less as a literary theorist, than as a practical artist, and it must be allowed that in both characters he has left specimens sufficient to rank him very high in the English school. Where he has failed in either, we should be inclined to attribute it to the peculiar frame of his mind, which, in his early as well as mature years, appears to have been deficient in soundness: alternately agitated by conceit or flattery; and irritated by contradiction, however gentle, and suspicion, however groundless. This was still more striking to every one conversant in mental derangement, when he exhibited at last, that most common of all symptoms, a dread of plots and conspiracies. This went so far at one time, that when robbed, as he said, of a sum of money, he exculpated common thieves and housebreakers, and attributed the theft to his brother artists, jealous of his reputation; yet the money was afterwards found where he had deposited it. The same unhappy malady may account for his many personal eccentricities of conduct, over which a veil may now be thrown. Nor is it necessary to specify his literary publications, as they were all collected in two volumes 4to, published in 1809, under the title of “The Works of James Barry,” with a life, from which the present sketch has been principally taken. 1


See also Edwards’! Anecdotes of Painters, and Pilkington’s Dict. Edit. 1810,