James Barry (1741-1806)

b. 11 Dec., Water Lane, Cork; son of a shipmaster; at first sailed with his father but turned to painting; ed. [Robert] West’s Academy in Dublin; his “Conversion by St Patrick of the King of Cashel” was the first painting to deal with Irish historical subject matter and won him a premium, gaining him the attention of Edmund Burke, whom he portrayed as Cato in a celebrated picture and later in “Ulysses and a Companion”, with himself in the lesser role; invited to London by Edmund Burke, 1763 [var. 1764], who introduced him to Reynolds, Athenian Stewart, and others, while supplying an allowance for four years study in Rome, 1765-71 and a visit to Paris; earned membership of Clementine Academy in Bologna with his “Philoctetes on the Isle of Lemnos”;
returned to England 1770; exhibited “Adam & Eve” at the Royal Academy, London, 1771-76; secured Assoc. Membership of the RA with “Venus Rising from the Waves” (1772); became full MRA, 1773; published Inquiry into Obstructions to Arts in England (1775), a reply to Winckelmann demolishing his theory that the genius of England is limited by its climate; founding member of RHA (Dublin); decorated without payment the Great Room of the [Royal] Society for the Encouragement of the Arts [RSA] in the Adelphi 1777-83, composing six-part series of large mural-paintings illustrating the The Progress of Human Culture [var. Knowledge] in the Great Room of the Royal Society of Arts (London), living during this time on bread and apples, while sketching for engravers at night; accused the RSA of burglering his house;
published several engravings; voted 250 guineas and the Society’s Gold Medal; RA professor of painting, 1782; invited to paint scenes for John Boydell’s ‘Shakespeare Gallery’, his few portraits acknowledged to be of very high quality; expelled from Royal Academy in consequence of continuing quarrels with academicians, 1799 - and was defended by William Blake; supported the Act of Union and the tributary role of Ireland; lived in poverty until 1805 when £1,000 from the Society of Arts secured an annuity, but did not live to receive the first payment, d. 22 Feb; buried St. Paul’s; his major works long-disparaged as ‘graceless bombast’ (Julian Bell) but now counted as the creator of the neo-classical style of in English public painting; he is said to have been a profound influence on William Blake; subject of revival exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1983, resulting in a positive reappraisal of the work of this ‘notoriously belligerent personality’. RR ODNB DIB BREF WJM

A Gallery of the Works of James Barry

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Paintings (selected titles), “Baptism of Aongus King of Munster”, “Venus Rising from the Sea”, “Medea Making Her Incantations”, “Aeneas Escaping with His Family from the Sack of Troy”; “The Education of Achilles”, “Narcissus”, “Jupiter and Juno”, “Mercury Inventing the Lyre”, “The Death of Adonis”, “Horatio Presenting his Son to the People”, and “The Creation of Pandora”, “The Distribution of the Premiums”, “Death of General Wolfe”, “Prince of Wales”, “Northumberland”, “Edward Hooper”, “Ulysses and a Companion”, and “The Progress of Human Culture”.

Writings, Inquiry into Obstructions to Arts in England (1775); E. Fryer, ed., The Works of James Barry, Esq., Historical Painter, 2 vols. (London 1809) [see details].

The Correspondence of James Barry, edited online by Tim McLoughlin at Texte (based at Galway University/NUI Galway, incorporates all the known correspondence of the Irish painter [online; access unavailable at 11.06.2010].

The Works of James Barry, Esq.: Historical Painter ... containing, his correspondence from France and Italy with Mr. Burke; his lectures on painting delivered at the Royal-Academy; observations on different works of art in Italy and France; critical remarks on the principal paintings of the Orleans Gallery; essay on the subject of Pandora [...]; And his inquiry into the causes which have obstructed the progress of the fine arts in England; his account of the paintings at the Adelphi; and letter to the Dilettanti Society: To which is prefixed, Some account of the life and writings of the author: In two volumes [2 vols.] (London: Printed by J. M'Creery [...] For T. Cadell and W. Davies [...] 1809), ill. [ports.], 29 cm. [4°].

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Full-length studies
  • Tom Dunne & William L. Pressly, ed., James Barry, 1741-1806: History Painter (Farnham: Ashgate 2010), 268pp. [available at Amazon - online; see also review - infra]
Articles & commentary
  • Patrick Kennedy, The Book of Modern Irish Anecdotes: Humour, Wit and Wisdom (Dublin: Gill, 1897) [see extract];
  • D. Irwin, English Neo-Classical Art (London 1966), pp.38-43;
  • J. White, ‘Irish Romantic Painting’, Apollo, 84 (1966), pp.276-79;
  • Anne O. Cruikshank & the Knight of Glin [Desmond Fitzgerald], Irish Portraits 1600-1860 (London: Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, 1969) [see extract];
  • William L. Pressly, The Life and Art of James Barry (Yale: Paul Mellen Center 1981), 320pp; index;
  • W. B. Stanford, Ireland and the Classical Tradition (Dublin: IAP 1976) [infra];
  • Tom Dunne, ed., James Barry (1741-1806): “The Great Historical Painter” (Crawford Municipal Art Gallery/Gandon 2005). 144pp. [see extract]
  • William L. Pressly, James Barry’s Murals at the Royal Society of Arts: Envisioning A New Public Art (Cork UP 2014), 396pp., ill.

See also entry by Luke Gibbons, in W. J. McCormack, ed., Blackwell Companion to Modern Irish Culture (1999; 2001). For Burke’s influence on Barry, see R. R. Wark, Journal of the Warburg Inst., xvii (1954), pp.382-84; Michael Wynne, ‘Reflections on “Art and Oratory”’, Éire-Ireland, 5, 2 (Summer 1970), pp.95-102; Stanley Ayling, Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions (London: John Murray 1988) [infra].


Note: Anthony Pasquin’s entry on James Barry in An Authentic History of the Professors of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in Ireland (1796) is reprinted in Fintan Cullen, Ed., Sources in Irish Art: A Reader (Cork UP 2000).

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Patrick Kennedy, The Book of Modern Irish Anecdotes: Humour, Wit and Wisdom (Dublin: Gill, 1897), p.55, gives account of ‘Some of Barry’s Eccentricities’, recounting his first meeting with Burke when his Baptism of Aongus King of Munster was brought to Dublin to show in the RDS. In ensuing remarks on his time in London and his separation from the academy, his dirty habits in his worst - that is his noblest - times are reported by Southey. The reader is referred to Gilbert’s ‘Streets of Dublin’, Irish Quarterly Review, No. 10 (1852).

W. B. Stanford, Ireland and the Classical Tradition (IAP 1976; this edn. 1984), p.123f., remarks that James Barry was an enthusiastic student of classical models, his paintings “Philoctetes in the Isle of Lemnos” being inspired by a Greek epigram on Parrhasius’s treatment of the same theme and influenced by the Farnese Hercules and the Belvedere torso. Stanford holds that Barry had a special sympathy with the story of the origins of Man’s ills and weaknesses in that story, in view of his own. Barry painted himself into his pictures. In “Ulysses and a Companion Escaping from the Cave of Polyphemus”” [now in Crawford Art Gallery, Cork], Burke’s head is on Ulysses and Barry’s on the companion. Barry also appeared as the Greek painter Timanthes among the figures in his “Victors at Olympia”; and again in “The Cyclops and the Satyrs” [now in National Gallery of Ireland]. His most elaborate work was a series of mural paintings in 1777-83 for the Royal Society of Arts in London, entitled “The Progress of Human Culture”, it included Orpheus, Ceres & Bacchus in a Greek harvest-home, crowing of Olympic victors in the presence of Hiero of Syracuse, Diagorus of Rhodes, Cimon, Pericles, Herodotus, Socrates and again Barry portrayed as Timanthes. The final scene represents ancient and modern benefactors of mankind at Elysium, among them William Molyneux, near to Marcus Brutus. [123] Stanford further remarks that Barry had an enormous admiration for classical antiquity, and quotes remarks characterising his aesthetic taste. [ See further in Quotations, infra.]

Anne Cruikshank & [Desmond Fitzgerald] the Knight of Glin, Irish Portraits 1600-1860 (London: Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, 1969) [catalogue], remark that Barry would have hated to be included in an exhibition of portraiture: ‘Subscribing to the superiority of history-painting he felt portraiture to be an infinitely inferior art form [but] produced some magnificent pictures varying from the grand full-length the Duke of Northumberland to brilliant romantic self-portrait in NGI. [&c.]’ (p.19). Cruickshank and Glin further conjecture that Barry, in writing that ‘The Moderns, with all their vapouring, have invented nothing, not even in the most trifling articles of convenient household utensils … is there anything new in the world?’ may have been influenced by Daniel Webb, whose comparable remarks in An Enquiry into the Beauties of Painting (1760) he is known to have read. They further remark that Barry, a creator of neo-classical style in subject pictures later distilled his grand manner into simpler, more condensed genre of portrait painting - the latter considered his greatest achievement. Works cited include “The Distribution of the Premiums” [at RSA]; “Prince of Wales”; “Northumberland”; “Edward Hooper”; “Ulysses and a Companion” and “The Progress of Human Culture” (pp.52-53).

Stanley Ayling, Edmund Burke: His Life and Opinions (London: John Murray 1988), on Burke’s patronage of James Barry, whom he agreed with William to send to France and Italy; cites letter from William encouraging the plan of contribute to ‘another friend of worth and merit’; and Burke’s letter to Barry in Paris (Spring 1765) advising on diet [‘Singularity in diet is in general, I believe, unwholesome; your friend the doctor [Nugent] is that way of thinking … Until you draw beauty to the last degree of truth and precision, you will not consider yourself possessed of [the powers of a true artist] … Let me entreat you to go through a full course of anatomy, with the knife in your hand …’ (Quoting Barry, Works, I, pp.53-55; Ayling, op. cit., q.p.)

Tom Dunne, ed., James Barry, 1741-1806 (Crawford Gallery/Gandon Edns. 1005) - prospectus: ‘James Barry remains the most ambitious, controversial and important painter that Ireland has produced. But this Cork-born artist was also a neoclassical painter of major international significance, although not often given his due as such. His reputation for eccentricity, for extreme political views, 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, and while six are very large and constitute a remarkable series on The Progress of Human Culture in the Great Room of the Adelphi headquarters of the (Royal) Society of Arts, 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 on very different lines. / For the most part, however, Barry has been remarkably little known or appreciated in his native city or country. He left Cork in 1760, and Ireland in 1764, still unformed as an artist, and never to return. Yet Cork and his family shaped him in crucial and enduring ways. This book gives the reader an opportunity to enjoy and understand better the work of one of Ireland’s greatest artists. Barry’s art aimed to be international and universal, grounded as it was not only in the Renaissance masters he most admired – Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian – but even more in classical Greek painting, long lost and known only from writings, and shadowed for him in Roman copies of Greek sculptures. What he told his first and most important patron, Edmund Burke, while still a student in Rome remained true all his life: “My thoughts, day and night, run on nothing else but the antique.” His ideal, he wrote years later, consisted in ’uniting the Grecian with the Italian art”.’

Muriel Adrien, review of Tom Dunne & William L. Pressly, James Barry, 1741-1806: History Painter, in Miranda, Review pluridisciplinaire du monde anglophone/Interdisciplinary review of the Anglophone world (5: 2010): ‘Despite the four books James Barry (1741-1806) authored, and despite his reputation as Britain’s greatest history painter, his achievements were given scant attention until the second half of the twentieth century. One of the reasons may be that his oeuvre is sophisticated and limited (33 pictures), including six murals, which of course cannot be traded on the art market. But this edited collection lifts the veil on many other aspects of Barry's career, suggesting why his work has long remained neglected. The bicentennial of his death in 2006 was the opportunity to engage with his art anew through a major exhibit in Cork, Ireland, Barry’s hometown, and new research by Pressly on Barry’s magnum opus, The Adelphi series. This edited volume publishes the conference papers given on the occasion of the bicentennial Cork exhibition and offers much needed scholarship on an overlooked artist, given the quality of his ambitious oeuvre. / In an introductory chapter, Tom Dunne says that Barry was a much more radical and fervent believer in the genre of history painting than Reynolds was himself, and he loudly resented the national development of lesser genres at the expense of the grand style. Barry severely criticized Reynolds for abandoning high art in favour of lukewarm and debased commercial painting, although he did take up with him again later. His uncompromising attitude accounts for his expulsion from the Royal Academy in 1799. Barry commended the ideal classical Greek model, thinking the values it conveyed would transform society into a “republic of taste”. His Progress of Human Culture encoded a pro-Catholic subtext for which he later felt the need to provide an explanation. This unswerving commitment put him at odds with the adverse British art world whose market was sustained by other genres. Dunne then mentions how Michael Phillips shed new light on Barry as printmaker. Barry’s radicalism and principled temperament owed him the admiration of Blake, as well as his Fuseli-like attraction for Miltonic themes of exile and expulsion. But Fuseli was more cynical and pragmatic than Barry who remained ever the vocal staunch idealist. [...]’ (Review treats of each chapter in turn; see full-text copy at RICORSO > Library > Criticism > Reviews - infra; or in separate window.

Thomas McCarthy, “Self-Portrait as Timanthes”, in Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art, ed. Janet McLean [1850-1950 Curator at National Gallery of Ireland] (London: Thames & Hudson 2014), pp.131-35: ‘All through the 1990s each train journey I made because a pilgrimage to this one painting I visited Dublin regularly to attend board meetings at Poetry Ireland, a national organisation that was then expanding its influence under its revolutionary director, the poet Theo Dorgan. [...] We must all stand back from work and feel ashamed that we have not done more for art and truth. Scholars have construed the loosened black ribbon on Barry"s neck as the shadow of the guillotine, the fate that awaits all counter-revolutionaries. I beg to [131] disagree. I’ve never thought that. Surely it is art unbuttoned, bindings loosened, the break of life upon an exposed neck. [... / ...] This is a deeply personal work of art; it is full of yearning and human wariness. It is very much a metaphor for an artistic life of any kind. And it doesn’t have a citizenship or a religion: we are all hunted, as Timanthes was, and we all all nervously awaiting our destiny, as Barry constantly was. I feel for him and I feel for this painting because I know his luck ran out several times. I still love to come upon it. It speas to me of mnay lost connections and that foolish yearning to hurry up and finish some all-consuming work of art. / This painting is one of the gems of our National Gallery It is worth taking any long journey to coe upon this triumph of antiquity and revolution, of political camouflage and artistic nakedness. When I stand by this painting my resolve as a poet stiffs and my political faith in the artistic life is restored completely.’ [End; for longer extract, see under McCarthy - as infra.]

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Richard Ryan, Biographia Hibernica, Vol. 1 (1819), includes a long account of Barry and a lithographical sketch of his exceedingly tumble-down terrace house at Castle St. Oxford Market ( ascribed to ‘J. Bryant del.’). Note that the same is printed in William L. Pressly, The Life and Art of James Barry (Yale: Paul Mellen Center 1981), where it is called ‘The House of James Barry’, in pencil and gray wash, by Joshua Bryant, the original being held in Yale Centre for British Art, New Haven, together with a ‘study of’ portrait of Burke (pl.).

Brian de Breffny, ed., A Cultural Encyclopaedia of Ireland (London: Thames & Hudson [1982], reproduced a detail from “The Trinity of Modern Commerce” p.40).

Note that Barry’s Wedding“ of Strongbow and Aoife” serves as an illustration in D. A. Chart’s The Story of Dublin [Medieval Towns ser.] (London: Dent 1907), facing p.17.

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Vapouring [upon visiting Herculaneum]: ‘The moderns, with all their vapouring, have invented nothing, have improved nothing, not even in the most trifling articles of convenient household utensils.’ (The Works of James Barry, Esq., Historical Painter, Vol. 1, p.110; quoted in W. B. Stanford, Ireland and the Classical Tradition, Dublin: IAP 1976, p.124.)

Sage Greeks: ‘[I]t must be allowed that at least the Greek artists selected with great sagacity and genius all that specific configuration of parts which, in their complete perfect union, were best adapted to impress on the mind of the spectator an idea of that particular attribute, the perfection of which they had appropriated to each of those partitions or gods into which they had mistakenly divided the Divine Essence. To this procedure of the Grecian artists, however erroneous as to theology, we are notwithstanding indebted for such a reform, such amelioration of all the arts that had been handed down to this ingenious people from their Egyptian and Asiatic predecessors, as can never be overrated.’ (“Essay Upon the Pandora Myth”; Works, Vol. 1. pp.148-49; Stanford, op. cit., 1976, idem.)

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Romance: A romantic self-portrait of Barry held in the National Gallery of Ireland appears on the dustjacket of the New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse, ed. Jerome J. McGann.

Pers. dram: James Barry appears in the novel Merchant Prince (2005) by Thomas McCarthy whose central character meets the painter in Rome while studying for the priesthood there.

Kith & Kin: James Barry, MD (1792-1865), born Margaret Ann Bulkley, in Cork, and trained in medicine in Edinburgh on the pretense that she was a prococious young man, afterwards a successful British Army surgeon and an respected innovator in medical hygiene who was revealed to be a man only at her death - and, finally, the joint-subject with Florence Nightingale of Whistling Psyche (2004), a play by Sebastian Barry [q.v. - see under Notes, supra].

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