Barralet, John James (c.1747–1815), artist and drawing master, was born in Dublin, son of a huguenot émigré. He was known to have at least two brothers, one of whom, John Melchior (c.1750–c.1787), also became an artist, practising mainly in London. Barralet received his artistic training at two of the Dublin Society's drawing schools, where he studied under Robert Lucius West (qv) and James Mannin (qv). He was evidently a talented pupil, as he was awarded two premiums for ‘Drawing of human figures and heads’ and ‘Inventions of designs and patterns’ in 1764, and a third for ‘Original design in patterns’ in 1766 (Raley, 19). Having completed his studies, he worked as an artist in Dublin, becoming known as a gifted drawing teacher. He later moved to London, though the exact date of his departure for London is uncertain – dates alternating between 1766 and 1770, when his name appears among the signatories of the ‘Rolls of declaration’ supporting the Incorporated Society of Artists. He made his mark in London's artistic circles, exhibiting topographical landscapes and subject pieces at the Royal Academy (1770–76), the Society of Arts (who awarded him a golden palette for his ‘View of Brentford from Kew’ in 1774), and the Society of Artists (1773–80), who elected him a fellow and director in 1777. In that year he submitted six landscapes to the exhibition in the great room at the Royal Exchange, Strand. Throughout this period Barralet continued to teach, establishing drawing-schools in James's St., Golden Square (1773), and St Alban's St., Pall Mall (1777). He is also credited as being among the group of artists who pioneered the production of small full-length watercolour portraits on paper.
In 1779 he returned to Dublin and, on the recommendation of Mannin, then critically ill, was appointed as his temporary replacement at the Dublin Society's School for Ornament Drawing. He remained in this post after Mannin's death in June 1779. However, despite his friendship with John Foster (qv) and Edmund Sexten Pery (qv), both vice-presidents of the society, and his popularity among staff and pupils at the school, he was defeated in the November 1779 election for the mastership by William Waldron, a protégé of the 2nd duke of Leinster (qv). Waldron subsequently proved an unsatisfactory teacher. When receiving his final payment from the society, Barralet was awarded a gratuity of £45 ‘in consideration of his great merit as an artist; and his diligence and attention in superintending the said school’ (Turpin, 46).
Remaining in Dublin, Barralet lived alternatively in George's Court, South Cumberland Road, and Ballsbridge. In 1780 he accompanied Gabriel Beranger (qv) on a sketching tour of Wicklow and Wexford. Twenty-three of his drawings were later engraved for inclusion in Francis Grose's Antiquities of Ireland (1791–5). His illustrations also appeared in Thomas Milton's Views of the seats in Ireland (1783–93), and his designs for allegorical cartouches were included in Alexander Taylor's (qv) New map of Ireland (1793). He continued to exhibit, submitting paintings to the Society of Artists Exhibition in William St. (1780), while supplementing his income through work as a scene-painter in the Crow Street Theatre (1782), and with the glass-staining firm of Richard Hand and Thomas Chebsey. His friendship with Foster, then speaker of the house of commons, paid dividends in 1786 when Foster commissioned him to paint his family on the steps of their newly built country home at Oriel Temple, Co. Louth. He subsequently spent some time working in Glenarm, Co. Antrim, where he was employed as a drawing-master to the family of Randal MacDonnell, 6th earl of Antrim. During his stay there in the late 1780s he also executed a number of landscapes.
Unable to make an adequate living in Ireland, Barralet emigrated to America, settling in Philadelphia, where in December 1794 he helped establish the short-lived ‘Associate Artists of Philadelphia’. He soon found Philadelphians had little interest in painting, and as a result worked primarily as an illustrator and engraver. Among his most popular pieces were his engravings of George Washington, the first of which was advertised in April 1795. It was followed by another series of prints in 1799, and in 1802 by his best-known work, ‘The apotheosis of Washington’. Produced to mark the president's death, the print remained in circulation for some years, and after the assassination in 1865 of Abraham Lincoln inspired similar popular prints. He also designed the membership certificate for the local Hibernian Society (1798). Among the significant commissions Barralet received in Philadelphia were those for paintings of the Market St. Bridge and the house of the publisher John Dunlap (qv), the latter being completed after 1806. In 1811 Barralet was appointed professor of drawing from the antique at the Academy of Art in Philadelphia. He is thought to have invented a ruling machine for engravers and improved the ink used for copperplate prints. Described by his American friends as ‘a man of talent without discretion or anything like common prudence; prodigally generous, and graspingly poor’ (Rayley, 19), in later years he became renowned for his eccentric manner and untidy appearance. After several years of poor health he died in poverty (16 January 1815) in Philadelphia. He married twice, and had at least two sons by his second wife, who predeceased him.