Berry, William

, an ingenious Scotch artist, was one of those who owe more to nature than to instruction of | his parentage we have no account, but he appears to have been born about 1730, and at the usual time bound apprentice to Mr. Proctor, a seal engraver in Edinburgh. How long he remained with him is uncertain, but for some years after he began business for himself, he pursued the same branch with his teacher. At this time, however, his designs were so elegant, and his mode of cutting so clean and sharp, as soon to make' him be taken notice of as a superior artist. At length by constantly studying and admiring the style of the antique entaglios, he resolved to attempt something of that sort himself; and the subject he chose was a head of sir Isaac Newton, which he executed in a style of such superior excellence, as astonished all who had an opportunity of observing it. But as he was a man of the most unaffected modesty, and as this head was given to a friend in a retired situation in life, it was known only to a few in the private circle of his acquaintance; and for many years was scarcely ever seen by any one who could justly appreciate its merit. Owing to these circumstances, Mr. Berry was permitted to waste his time, during the best part of his life, in cutting heraldic seals, for which he found a much greater demand than for fine heads, at such a price as could indemnify him for the time that was necessarily spent in bringing works of such superior excellence to perfection. He often told the writer of this account, that though some gentlemen pressed him very much to make fine heads for them, yet he always found that, when he gave in his bill for an article of that kind, though he had charged perhaps not more than half the money that he could have earned in the same time at his ordinary work, they always seemed to think the price too high, which made him exceedingly averse to employment of that sort.

The impulse of genius, however, got so far the better of prudential considerations, that he executed, during the course of his life, ten or twelve heads, any one of which would have been sufficient to insure him immortal fame among judges of excellence in this department. Among these were the heads of Thomson the poet, Mary queen of Scots, Oliver Cromwell, Julius Caesar, a young Hercules, and Mr. Hamilton of Bangour, the poet. Of these onlytwo copies were from the antique, and they were executed in the finest style of those celebrated entaglios. The young Hercules in particular, which, if we mistake not, belongs to the earl of Findlater, possessed that unaffected | plain simplicity, and natural concurrence in the same expression of youthful innocence through all the features, conjoined with strength and dignity, which is, perhaps, the most difficult of all expressions to be hit off by the most faithful imitator of nature.

Mr. Berry possessed that very nice perceptive faculty, which constitutes the essence of genius in the fine arts, in such a high degree, as to prove even a bar to his attaining that superior excellence in this department, which nature had evidently qualified him for. Even in his best performance he thought he perceived defects, which no one else remarked, and which the circumstances above alluded to prevented him from correcting. While others admired with unbounded applause, he looked upon his own performances with a kind of vexation, at finding the execution not to have attained the high perfection he conceived to be attainable. And not being able to afford the time to perfect hirnself in that nice department of his art, he became extremely averse to attempt it. Yet, in spite of this aversion, the few pieces above named, and some others, were extorted from him by degrees, and they came gradually to be known: and wherever they were known, they were admired, as superior to every thing produced in modern times, unless it was by Piccler of Rome, who in the same art, but with much greater practice in it, had justly attained a high degree of celebrity. Between the excellence of these two artists, connoisseurs differed in opinion; some being inclined to give the palm to Berry, while others preferred Piccler. The works of these two artists were well known to each other and each declared, with that manly ingenuousness, which superior genius alone can confer on the human mind, that the other was greatly his superior.

Mr. Berry possessed not merely the art of imitating busts, or figures set before him, in which he could observe and copy the prominence or the depression of the parts, but he possessed a faculty which presupposes a much nicer discrimination; that of being able to execute a figure in relievo, with perfect justness, in all its parts, which was copied from a drawing or a painting upon a flat surface. This was fairly put to the test in the head he executed of Hamilton of Bangour, a person he never saw: it was not only one of the most perfect likenesses that could be wished for, although he had only an imperfect sketch to copy, but there | was a correctness in the outline, and a truth and delicacy in the expression of the features, highly emulous of the best antiques, which were indeed the models on which he formed his taste.

Besides the heads above named, he also executed some full length figures both of men and other animals, in a style of superior elegance. But that attention to the interests of a numerous family, which a man of sound principles, as Mr. Berry was, could never allow him to lose sight of, made him forego these amusing exertions, for the more lucrative, though less pleasing employment, of cutting heraldic seals, which may be said to have been his constant employment from morning to night, for forty years together, with an assiduity that has few examples in modern times. In this department, he was without dispute the first artist of his time but even here, that modesty which was so peculiarly his own, and that invariable desire to give full perfection to every thing he put out of his hands, prevented him from drawing such emoluments from his labours as they deserved. Of this the following anecdote will serve as an illustration, and as an additional testimony of his very great skill. A certain noble duke, when he succeeded to his estate, was desirous of having a seal cut with his arms, &.c. properly blazoned upon it. But as there were no less than thirty-two compartments in the shield, which was of necessity confined to a very small space, so as to leave room for the supporters, and other ornaments, within the compass of a seal of an ordinary size, he found it a matter of great difficulty to get it executed. Though a native of Scotland himself, the duke never expected to find a man of the first-rate eminence in Edinburgh but applied to the most eminent seal-engravers in London and Paris, all of whom declined it as a thing beyond their power. At this time Berry, of whom he had scarcely heard, was mentioned to him in such a manner that he went to him, accompanied by a friend, and found him, as usual, sitting at his wheel. Without introducing the duke, the gentleman showed Berry an impression of a seal that the duchess dowager had got cut a good many years before by a Jew in London, who was dead before the duke thought of his seal, and which had been shewn to the others as a pattern, asking him if he would ciu a seal the same with that. After examining it a little, Mr. Berry answered readily that he would. The duke, pleased and | astonished at the same time, cried out, “Will you, indeed” Mr. Berry, who thought this implied some sort of doubt of his abilities, was a little piqued at it; and turning round to the duke, whom he had never seen before, nor knew; “Yes (said he,) sir; if I do not make a better seal than this, I shall take no payment for it.” The dukej highly pleased, left the pattern with Mr. Berry, and went away. The pattern seal contained, indeed, the various devices on the thirty-two compartments, distinctlyenough to be seen, but none of the colours were expressed. Mr. Berry, in a proper time, finished the seal; on which the figures were not only done with superior elegance, but the colours on every part so distinctly marked, that a painter could delineate the whole, or a herald blazon it, with the most perfect accuracy. For this extraordinary exertion of talents, he charged no more than thirty- two guineas, though the pattern seal had cost seventy-five. Thus it was, that, notwithstanding he possessed talents of the most superior kind, and assiduity almost unequalled, observing at all times a strict economy in his family, Mr. Berry died at last, in circumstances that were not affluent, on the 3d of June, 1783, in the 53d year of his age, leaving a numerous family of children. Besides his eminence as an artist, he was distinguished by the integrity of his moral character, and the strict principles of honour which on all occasions influenced his conduct. 1


Dr. James Anderson’s Bee, or Literary Intelligencer, for March, 1793.