Barry, James (1741–1806), history painter, was born 11 October 1741 in a cottage in Water Lane (latterly Seminary Road), Cork, the eldest child in a family of four boys – his brothers were Patrick, Redmond, and John – and a girl, Mary Ann.
Background and early training Although much has been made of Barry's humble beginnings, his father John seems to have been entrepreneurial and business-minded, while his mother Juliana Reardon, from an old Munster catholic family, encouraged her son's interest in the arts. John Barry, formerly a builder, owned an inn on the Cork quays, and also a coastal trading vessel that plied between Ireland and England. According to his biographer, Edward Fryer, Barry made several voyages on his father's trader, but, ‘instead of hauling sails and ropes, and climbing the mast, he was generally occupied with a piece of black chalk, sketching the coast, or drawing figures’ (Works, i, 2). W. G. Strickland (qv) relates that one of Barry's first paintings was an inn sign, depicting a ship and a figure of Neptune, for his father's public house; this was one of a number of inn and shop signs painted by Barry for premises in Cork.
Barry received tuition (1758–63) from a local artist, John Butts. At this period he painted a number of canvases, now lost, on biblical and classical themes, including ‘Aeneas escaping with his family from the flames of Troy’, ‘Susanna and the elders’, and ‘Daniel in the lions’ den’. A local patron, Dr Fenn Sleigh, encouraged him to go to Dublin and in 1760 Barry enrolled in the drawing schools of the Dublin Society; however, he seems to have returned to Cork for a period before submitting his painting ‘The baptism of the king of Cashel by St Patrick’ to the society's 1763 annual exhibition. Purchased for the Irish house of commons, this painting won a prize, and also brought Barry to the attention of Edmund Burke (qv), then private secretary to the chief secretary for Ireland, William Gerard Hamilton (qv). (The work was damaged by fire in the late eighteenth century, but survives at Terenure College, Dublin.) Like Barry, Burke had been raised and educated in Cork, and was the son of a marriage between a catholic mother and a protestant father; the two men thus had a shared background and a common antipathy towards the suppression of religious freedom.
Studies in Italy Burke arranged for Barry to move to London in 1764 to work under James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, who set him to work translating watercolour sketches of Greek architecture into oil paintings. In 1765, again under the patronage of Burke, who was by then a leading whig MP, Barry embarked on a lengthy tour of Europe. He spent six months in Paris, where he studied the works of Poussin, Le Sueur, and other artists of the seventeenth century, whose austere classicism he preferred to the then fashionable rococo style of Boucher and Fragonard. In 1766 Barry made his way to Rome, where he worked assiduously, making detailed drawings of antique sculptures in the Vatican museum and the Borghese gallery; he also developed a reputation for being aloof and prone to take offence without cause. In the NGI there is a copy by Barry (1767) of a painting by Poussin, once thought to be of the Athenian general Phocion.
From Rome, Barry travelled to Naples, visiting Herculaneum and Pompeii, where, in addition to antique sculpture and decorative arts, fresco paintings were being discovered during excavations. At Herculaneum, he had nothing but praise for the ingenuity of the ancient Romans, but was less impressed by the frescos he saw. Echoes of the classical works excavated at Herculaneum can be found in Barry's later paintings, including the poignant ‘Death of Adonis’ (1775), where the sinuous outlines of the two deer echo the forms of bronze sculptures excavated from the Villa of the Papyri; the fleeing boar on the left of the ‘Death of Adonis’ is also based on one of these bronzes. Rams from Herculaneum inspired Barry's depiction of these animals in his ‘Portraits of Burke and Barry in the guise of Ulysses and his companions escaping from the cave of Polyphemus’ (Crawford Art Gallery, Cork), while his ‘Education of Achilles’ (c.1772), with its powerful figure of the centaur Chiron standing over the lyre-playing Achilles, is a reworking of the magnificent ‘Chirone e Achille’, excavated before 1752 by archaeologists tunnelling into the basilica. In spite of being a provincial Roman copy of a Greek original, ‘Chirone e Achille’ (now in the Museo Nazionale, Naples, inv. 9109) provided evidence, hitherto unavailable to artists, of easel painting in Hellenic times. Barry also incorporated an image of a large statue of Isis into his composition, symbolic of the oriental mystery cults that were gradually overwhelming the old gods of Rome; he may have intended it to allude to the suppression of catholicism in eighteenth-century England and Ireland.
Barry combined his researches into these ancient Greek and Roman sources with a study of the painting techniques of Titian, whose use of colour he greatly admired. He painted several copies of works by Raphael and Titian, which he offered to Burke, who had purchased a large country house, The Gregories, at Beaconsfield near London. Burke declined his offer as the house was already full of paintings. During these years, Barry set out not only to emulate the achievements of Raphael and Michelangelo, but to surpass them, by reviving history painting on a grand scale and combining the antique with the contemporary. His artist friends in Rome included fellow expatriates, such as Joseph Nollekens, Alexander Runciman, and John Francis Rigaud. The atmosphere among them was friendly, but there was also much rivalry, particularly for commissions from aristocrats visiting Rome on the grand tour.
Barry was one of very few Irish artists in Rome at the time: it would be fifteen years before Hugh Douglas Hamilton (qv) settled there, and a further three before Robert Fagan (d. 1816) brought his art-dealing and entrepreneurial skills to the city. However, even with the field to himself, and with Edmund Burke guiding ‘milords’ to his studio, Barry's stubborn and intractable personality, mixed with his high idealism, meant that he missed out on lucrative portrait opportunities. Ever the wise counsellor, Burke wrote to Barry, exhorting him to stay on in Rome and continue his studies. Before returning to England, in 1770 Barry sent the ‘Temptation of Adam’ (NGI) for exhibition in London. In its depiction of two life-size nude figures in an Arcadian landscape, this painting was influenced by Burke's treatise A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and the beautiful, published ten years earlier.
It is clear that, from London, Edmund Burke and Sir Joshua Reynolds were keeping a close eye on Barry's progress in Rome. They agreed that on his journey home Barry should go to Bologna, part of the Papal States and a centre for classical studies and medical science. After his arrival there Barry attended dissections at the school of anatomy and art classes at the Accademia Clementina. Somewhat to his surprise, through the intervention of two friends named Keable and Bianconi, he was awarded a diploma by the academy; Burke and Reynolds probably had a hand in arranging the award, and Barry's friend John Francis Rigaud, who was already a member of the Accademia, may also have helped. In November 1770 Barry wrote to Reynolds: ‘In consequence of the compliment made me by the Bolognese artists of receiving me into their body, I have painted a picture of Philoctetes for the Institute’ (Barry to Reynolds, Bologna, 17 Nov. 1770; Works, i, 193). Barry was clearly pleased with his work, even though it had been painted in only a few weeks: ‘I followed closely the Greek epigram upon Parrhasius's picture of the same subject, and I found the Philoctetes of Sophocles, a useful comment upon it’ (Barry to Burke, Bologna, undated; Works, i, 189).
In ancient Greece, Parrhasius was famous for his skill in depicting the human figure: Seneca described how he went so far as to torture a slave to achieve realism in a painting. Written around 400
‘Philoctetes’ can be read as a self-portrait, a depiction of the artist as victim, that recurs in other works by Barry, including his drawings ‘Ecce homo’, ‘Milo of Crotona’, ‘Meleager’, and ‘St Sebastian’; even his earliest known painting, ‘The baptism of the king of Cashel by St Patrick’, shows a man being wounded. Barry's paintings ‘The death of General Wolfe’ and ‘The death of Adonis’ are also notable for their portrayal of doomed heros. However, while the story of Philoctetes fitted well with Barry's psyche and personal story, it was also part of a trend in intellectual circles at the time, towards a more expressive art, one that prefigured the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. In choosing Philoctetes as a subject, Barry was probably consciously reflecting the aesthetic theories of Gotthold Lessing, who had discussed this subject in his book Laocoon (1766). By comparing the restrained expression of grief or pain, part of the social code of eighteenth-century Europe, with the freer expression of emotion in ancient Greece, Lessing had signalled a move away from the neoclassical aesthetic towards Romanticism. However, it was Barry who took up the challenge, and pursued it a stage further through his harrowing depiction of the wounded hero. As the first painter in post-classical times to depict this difficult subject, it is probable that the ambitious Barry hoped to place himself in the vanguard of European intellectual development.
The historian Luke Gibbons argues that Barry's ‘Philoctetes’ can be read as representing Ireland ‘as a wounded body’, an argument sustained by Barry's dedication of an aquatint of the painting (1777) to Sir George Savile (who had introduced into the British parliament a catholic relief act removing disabilities from catholics in England). However, ‘Philoctetes’ carries more meanings than one. With its emphasis on the physical wound, ‘Philoctetes’ relates to the scientific milieu of eighteenth-century Bologna; its theatricality engages the viewer in an innovative way; by taking Parrhasius's subject, it demonstrates Barry's reverence for Greek art; and its harrowing depiction shows the artist's familiarity with Lessing's ideas and those of the German scholar and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Perhaps most importantly, with its psychological subtext of victimhood, ‘Philoctetes in the island of Lemnos’ (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna) prefigures Barry's own troubled life and career in London.
London and the Royal Academy In 1771 Barry returned to London, where for the next five years he worked at a furious pace, painting over fifteen works which he exhibited at the Royal Academy. Elected an associate member of the Academy in 1772, he was made a full academician the following year. Shortly after returning to London, Barry was commissioned by the physician Dr Brocklesby to paint a portrait of Edmund Burke. Even though Burke called at Barry's studio on several occasions, the artist continually found excuses to defer the work. The correspondence in 1774 between statesman and artist makes sad reading. Burke did his best to avoid a quarrel, but the descent into irrationality of his protégé was a cause of distress to him. He wrote to Barry: ‘There are expressions in your letter of so very extraordinary a nature with regard to your being free from any misfortune, that I think it better to pass them over in silence. I do not mean to quarrel with you, Mr Barry; I do not quarrel with my friends’ (Burke to Barry, 13 July 1774; Works, i, 237). Barry did eventually paint a portrait of Burke (c.1774), a copy of which is in the NGI.
By the following year, when he published An inquiry into the real and imaginary obstructions to the acquisition of the arts in England, Barry was deeply entangled in a battle with real and imaginary opponents, which would ultimately lead in 1799 to his expulsion from the Royal Academy and his withdrawal from society. In 1775 he painted the poignant ‘Death of Adonis’, and the following year exhibited at the academy ‘Portraits of Burke and Barry in the guise of Ulysses and his companions escaping from the cave of Polyphemus’ (Crawford Art Gallery, Cork). In this complex painting, personal and political metaphors are combined in a setting taken from Homer's Odyssey. Barry depicts his friend and patron Edmund Burke holding his forefinger to his lips, counselling caution to the headstrong and impetuous artist. In the background the blinded Cyclops serves as a metaphor for Barry's jaundiced view of the British establishment. Both he and Burke were vehemently against the decision to prosecute the war against the American colonies. Following criticism of another painting he showed at the RA that year, ‘The death of General Wolfe’, Barry decided never again to exhibit at the Academy.
The animosity that Barry felt for Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, was tempered by respect for Reynolds's artistic and literary achievements, an admiration well expressed in the eulogy Barry read on the death of Reynolds in 1793. However, Barry's relations with the academy president were fraught. Of William Blake's unfinished poem about Barry only a fragment survives; a diatribe, it illustrates Blake's view of Reynolds. Barry was not the only Irish artist to enter the lists with Reynolds: Nathaniel Hone (qv), a founding member of the Royal Academy, was refused permission to hang his painting ‘The conjuror’ (1775) in the academy's annual exhibition. This painting was a bitter satire on Reynolds's dependence upon old master prints for his compositions. Like Henry Fuseli and Benjamin Haydon, Barry was disappointed at the pedestrian nature of English patronage, which was suspicious of history painting in the grand Italian manner and was directed instead towards portrait and landscape painting, where ideas were subservient to the image or subject.
Barry's greatest achievement during these years, in which his complex political ideas come strongly to the fore, was the series of large history paintings he did for the Great Room at the Society of Arts in London. Founded in 1754, the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce moved into its purpose-built headquarters in John Adam Street twenty years later. Designed by Robert and James Adam, the society's new home contained a ‘Great Room’ originally designed as an assembly room where members could meet for discussion and debate. Between the years 1777 and 1801, Barry painted on the walls of this room what is perhaps the most important cycle of neo-classical paintings, ‘The progress of human knowledge and culture’. The first painting in this ambitious mural cycle was ‘Orpheus instructing a savage people’, showing the birth of culture in ancient Greece. This was followed by ‘The Grecian harvest home’ (inspired by Poussin's ‘The golden calf’) and ‘Crowning the victors at Olympia’. In these very large paintings Barry included portraits of the living and recently deceased, blending together ancient civilisation with his own times in a complex and personal artistic vision. By 1778 he had nearly completed two further canvases, ‘The triumph of the Thames’, featuring portraits of Captain Cook and the musician Dr Charles Burney, and ‘The distribution of premiums by the Royal Society of Arts’, that included a considerable number of portraits of past and present members of the society. By 1784 the paintings in the Great Room were substantially completed, although Barry continued making alterations and additions for a further seventeen years. The culmination of the cycle, ‘Elysium and Tartarus, or the state of final retribution’, is a vast canvas containing over 125 identifiable portraits of philosophers, explorers, kings, and other historical figures. Although he received some modest recognition and financial reward for this extraordinary work, Barry was disappointed with the public response. In 1783, in an attempt to raise money and public consciousness of the work, he published a book containing large engravings, made by himself, attempting to explain the thinking behind the murals.
With the completion in 1790 of the ‘Prince of Wales’ portrait, occupying a key position in the Great Room, Barry evidently anticipated royal approval and patronage; it was not forthcoming. A similar large portrait, ‘The prince of Wales in the guise of St George’ (Crawford Art Gallery, Cork), shows the degree to which Barry was prepared to pay homage to a monarchy he hoped would provide enlightened and benevolent leadership, rising above the self-interest of political opportunists and others whom he regarded as motivated by self-interest. In this hope Barry, along with many others, was to be disappointed.
Last years and legacy Through his paintings, engravings, and writings, Barry sought to establish a role for the artist at the centre of culture and civilisation. As William Pressly makes clear in his biography, Barry saw the artist as a hero, leading politicians, thinkers, and the general public towards a more enlightened, benevolent, and tolerant society and government. Barry had high aspirations for Britain's role in world affairs and the decline in his mental health was accelerated by the futile prosecution of the war against political liberty in the American colonies; it was undoubtedly accelerated further by the horrific and genocidal events that accompanied the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. Living and working in London during these revolutionary years, when the English monarchy felt itself under imminent threat of extinction from France on the one hand and the loss of empire on the other, it is remarkable that Barry, an Irish catholic with outspoken beliefs in political, religious, and social liberty, succeeded in achieving as much as he did.
Through his self-portraits, one can chart the increasing depths of introspection and alienation into which Barry sank. There are many colourful descriptions of the house at 36 Castle Street East, London, where he was then living, the windows broken by street urchins; the artist, suffering from paranoia, afraid to go out into the street for fear of assassination by members of the Royal Academy. His finest self-portrait, in the NGI, shows the artist as Timanthes, a painter of ancient Greece. In the background is a sculpture of Hercules crushing the serpent of Envy; the artist holds in his hands a painting of the sleeping Cyclops. After his death in the house of the architect Joseph Bonomi at 76 Great Titchfield St. on 22 February 1806, it was easier for his peers, and even his enemies, to recognise his contribution to the arts. His body lay in state in the Great Room of the Society of Arts, and was interred on 14 March at St Paul's cathedral, beside his old adversary Sir Joshua Reynolds.