James Barry (1741–1806): ‘The Great Historical Painter’

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2006), News, Volume 14

Portraits of Burke and Barry in the characters of Ulysses and a companion fleeing from the cave of Polyphemus (c. 1776)— Edmund Burke’s influence on Barry’s art—and politics—was to be significant throughout his career. (Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, Cork)

Portraits of Burke and Barry in the characters of Ulysses and a companion fleeing from the cave of Polyphemus (c. 1776)— Edmund Burke’s influence on Barry’s art—and politics—was to be significant throughout his career. (Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, Cork)

James Barry remains the most ambitious, controversial and important painter that Ireland has produced. He was also a neo-classical painter of major international significance, although not often given his due as such. His reputation for eccentricity, for extreme political views, and for intemperate and paranoid confrontations with the art establishment still overshadows his considerable achievements as an artist. Furthermore, his output was comparatively small, with only 38 known canvases surviving; while six are very large and constitute a remarkable series on The Progress of Human Culture in the Great Room of the headquarters of the (Royal) Society of Arts in London, these have never been on public display, except briefly in 1782 and 1783. He exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts between 1772 and 1776 only, after which he showed two major paintings in London, in Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. After his death in 1806 his work virtually disappeared from view. The grand style of history painting to which he had dedicated his life—swimming against the artistic tide even in his own day—became ever more marginalised, as British art developed along very different lines.
The current exhibition in the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, in partnership with Cork 2005 and the Bowen Group, is the first in Ireland of Barry’s work, and offers a new opportunity to assess his achievement. It includes nearly all of Barry’s traceable oil paintings, the main exception being the six murals in the Society of Arts, which cannot be moved. The exhibition features a spectacular reproduction of these paintings at a scale of 85 per cent. Barry was also one of the most innovative and impressive printmakers of the eighteenth century, and all of his prints and many of his drawings can be seen in the Crawford show. All the works on view are reproduced in the catalogue, designed by John O’Regan of Gandon Editions, which also features articles by Barry’s biographer, William L. Pressly, and by Fintan Cullen, Peter Murray, Michael Phillips and myself, the catalogue’s editor.
Barry’s earliest artistic training was in Cork, principally from John Butts, whose panorama of the city of Barry’s youth can be seen in the exhibition. At the age of nineteen Barry went to study in the Dublin Society Schools, and first came to public notice with his dramatic, and topical, painting The Baptism of the King of Cashel by St Patrick (p. 18, this issue), which later hung in the Irish parliament. With Edmund Burke’s help he moved to London, and from there embarked on an extensive period of travel and private study, including five years in Rome. Burke’s influence on his art—and his politics—was to be significant throughout his career. Barry’s intensive study of the antique in Rome confirmed him in the view that history painting based on classical models (i.e. treating historic or legendary incidents in a grand style to promote public virtue) was the only true course for the artist, as is evident in his output, from early works like The Temptation of Adam to his late masterpiece The Birth of Pandora.
He made large claims for history painting, ‘this art par excellence’, the principal merit of which was ‘its address to the mind’. However, its most important function was social and political, not personal. As he told the Royal Academy, asserting the principles on which, indeed, it was founded: ‘Our art has the glory of being a moral art, with extensive means, peculiarly universal, and applicable to all ages and nations, to the improvement and deepest interests of society’. History painting and sculpture were the core of this ‘moral art’, the true tests of ‘national character . . . the great sources from whence all the rivulets of art flow and from whence only is derived the vigour and character that truly ennobles them’. This viewpoint was also articulated, with mounting vehemence, in the series of publications that form an important contribution to art theory, and became a major focus for him when his production of paintings slowed considerably.
Barry was initially successful on his return to London from Rome in 1771, exhibiting a series of impressive and challenging classical studies in the new Royal Academy, and in 1782 becoming its Professor of Painting. But he was also impatient and often intolerant, and made enemies, even quarrelling with Edmund Burke. He took criticism badly, and never exhibited in the Royal Academy again after the poor reception of his only painting on a contemporary ‘historical’ event, The Death of General Wolfe (1776). In the following year he found a more hospitable environment in the nearby Society of Arts, whose Great Room he was allowed to decorate (at his own expense) with six large paintings charting the progress of human culture from ancient Greece to contemporary England. This series is unique in British neo-classical art, and is one of the most fully realised expressions of artistic and philosophical vision anywhere.
Throughout the 1790s Barry was involved in an increasingly bitter quarrel with the group who controlled the Royal Academy, accusing them in his lectures and writings of diverting it from its original aims, especially by misspending public money on pensions rather than developing a national collection of art—long a campaigning issue for Barry. They finally engineered his expulsion in 1798, the first—and for over 200 years the only—member so treated. He was not informed of the charges against him, but according to one insider he was expelled for ‘avowed democratical principles’. Barry was, indeed, a political radical, but more in the seventeenth-century tradition, especially of Milton, whom he revered. But he was also self-avowedly Catholic and Irish, with a reputation for eccentricity, and so easily sacrificed by an establishment anxious to prove its orthodoxy and loyalty during a period of great political turmoil.
After his expulsion, Barry’s paranoia grew to disabling proportions. Robert Southey described memorably his ‘solitary, sullen life’, living in a cheerless, minimally furnished house, ‘which was never cleaned’, dressed in ancient paint-encrusted clothes and eating little, afraid to venture out because ‘the Academicians would waylay and murder him’. The self-portraits during those years reflect his sense of ageing and of melancholic solitude. But he continued to work as an engraver, particularly on the Great Room series, with some of his old energy and willingness to experiment. Furthermore, in this wrecked house, and despite his shambolic lifestyle, he continued painting, even finishing his challenging Self-Portrait as Timanthes, begun twenty years earlier. This was now recast to reflect his overwhelming sense of victimhood and yet also to assert his claim to be a great artist—if not the greatest since the Greeks. It is the most moving of all his works, a defiant statement by an artist embattled on all fronts, yet clinging to his youthful ideals and able to proclaim them with style up to the end.

Tom Dunne is managing editor of Cork University Press and Professor Emeritus of History at University College Cork.

An International Symposium on Barry will take place on 20–22 February 2006, the first two days in the Crawford Gallery, Cork, the third in the Great Room of the Society of Arts, 8 Adam Street, London, on the 200th anniversary of his death (see ‘Events’, p. 4, for details).


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