Barret, George (1728/32–1784), landscape painter, was born in the Liberties of Dublin, son of a clothier. He abandoned an apprenticeship as a stay-maker to study art at Robert West's (qv) academy, George's Lane, and as a student was funded by the Dublin Society, who awarded him (1747) first prize at their annual examination. He was for a time employed to colour prints for the publisher Thomas Silcock, and having completed his studies worked as a drawing-master in a school. Early in his career he received significant commissions. He decorated the panels and overdoors at Russborough House with views of Italianate landscapes and Roman ruins in the late 1740s, and at some point became known to Edmund Burke (qv), who took an interest in his work, encouraged him in his study of nature, and is thought to have furthered his career by introducing him to one of his early patrons, the 2nd Viscount Powerscourt. Barret produced a variety of landscapes of Powerscourt's north Wicklow estate, most notably several versions of the waterfall, in which critics detect an influence of Burke's theory of the ‘sublime and beautiful’.
Barret's reasons for moving to London are not clear: Strickland speculates that they may have stemmed from failure to secure publication for a set of engravings of his Dargle views in 1762. The date of his departure is also not certain, but is thought to have occurred in early 1763, as his name appears in the Dublin registry of deeds in February 1763. Though Pasquin recalls that Barret was forced to grind colours on arriving in London, he soon met with great success. He exhibited his view of Powerscourt waterfall and the Dargle with the Society of Artists (1764), and in the same year his ‘Landscape with figures’, shown by the Free Society, was awarded a premium of £50. This latter work was much admired by James Barry (qv), who later wrote: ‘My friend and fellow-countryman, Barret, does no small honour to landscape painting among us; I have seen nothing to match his last year's premium picture.’ Barret continued to exhibit at the Free Society (1779, 1782) and at the Society of Artists until 1768, and produced numerous views of north Wales and the Lake District. Hailed as London's leading landscape painter, he had numerous noble clients, including the duke of Portland (1765–6), the marquis of Rockingham (to whom Burke acted as secretary from July 1765), the duke of Buccleuch (1768/9), and Lord Dalkeith (1769). He managed to secure high prices for his work at a time when his rival Richard Wilson found it difficult to make an adequate living. Wilson had little regard for his painting, describing the combination of skies and foliage in his landscapes as ‘eggs and spinnage’. Nevertheless, Barret was a popular figure among his fellow artists. He joined the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain and went on to become a founder member of the Royal Academy (1768), serving on both its original council and first hanging committee, regularly exhibiting with the academy until 1782, and appearing in Zoffany's group portrait ‘The Royal Academy in 1773’. He opened his first drawing school in James St. (1773) and four years later opened a second in Pall Mall. Despite these successes (he was reputed to have had a yearly income of over £2,000) he was unable to live within his means. He is thought to have been bankrupt c.1780, when he was engaged to decorate a room at Norbury Park, Surrey, for William Locke, collaborating with Sawrey Gilpin, Giovanni Cipriani, and Benedetto Pastorini. The views of the Lake District are thought to be his finest work. Though Locke may have paid his debts, Barret continued to face financial troubles until Burke again used his influence and secured for him the post of master painter of Chelsea Hospital (1782). He married (1757) Frances Percy or Perry of Dublin; his death (29 May 1784) left her and their nine children in straitened circumstances until 1802, when the Royal Academy granted her a pension. Their children Joseph, James, George (a founder member of the Society of Painters in Water Colours, 1804), and Mary became painters. Though much sought after as an artist in his lifetime, Barret later fell out of favour, as Wilson predicted: ‘Depend upon it, you will see my pictures rise in esteem and price, when Barret's are forgotten.’