Barry's objections to the way in which the Council of the Royal Academy conducted its business in November 1796

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, ii. 496-501; the document was first printed in A Letter to the Dilettanti Society, Respecting the Obtention of Certain Matters Essentially Necessary for the Improvement of Public Taste, and for Accomplishing the Original Views of the Royal Academy of Great Britain (1798), and then in Fryer, Works of Barry, ii. 496-501.

At the meeting of the Council of the Royal Academy on 7 November, ostensibly to elect an associate (Royal Academy to Barry, 10 November 1796), Barry expected members to also discuss an unfinished item of business from the previous meeting, the issue of pensions for academicians and their widows. The Chairman gave no opportunity to resume this debate, to which Barry wanted to contribute, and closed the meeting. Barry then wrote and signed the following protest which he read to the members. The incident raised serious questions in Barry's view, not just about the respective powers of the Council as opposed to the general meetings of the Academy, but also about the good of the Academy.

The document comes at a time in the Academy's history when tensions and factions were seriously disrupting the institution: these developments are summed up by Holger Hoock: 'Fuelled by a series of substantive issues and personal enmities, factions had been forming in the late 1790s around President West and Farrington on the one hand - then called the "prevailing party" - and around James Wyatt and John Singleton Copley on the other, "the rebels"...The rebels argued for the independent executive power of Council: it needed to be defended against the 'prevailing party's' claims for the General Assembly's power of last resort (Holger Hoock, The King's Artists: The Royal Academy of Arts and the Politics of British Culture 1760-1840 (Oxford, 2003), p. 195).

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In the letter of summons for convening the last general meeting a month since,1 the business specified in that letter was only what number of associates should be elected at the next meeting; consequently, the vacancies being only three, the more important consideration, who amongst the candidates should be elected to fill any number of those vacancies within the three, being reserved for the second meeting, was, perhaps, the reason why so many of the academicians did not come to the first; and that it was owing to a mere accident that I was not in the number of those who, swayed by that reason, did not attend. Those academicians then who were absent at this first meeting, as well as many of those who were present, must be exceedingly shocked to find that the principal object prepared for the consideration and discussion of that meeting,2 was of quite another nature than what had been specified in the summons, and was indeed of the last and deepest importance to the reputation and existence of the Academy. In order, therefore, to prevent the Academy being surprised into any error, and that so disorderly and shocking a business shall not happen again, I move, that though it be the business of the Council to arrange and prepare matter for the consideration of the Academy, and that the Council ought to have every invitation and encouragement to produce such matter, of whatever kind, at any general meeting, and even whether specified in the summons or not, yet that it be enacted, as an invariable law, that the academy shall never proceed to give any vote at the general meeting on any business proposed by the Council, which has not been specified in the letter of summons for that meeting.

I also move, in order that a proper record of the transactions of the Academy may remain on its books, that the business proposed in the letter of summons for the general meeting, be copied into our books, at the head of the minutes of the transactions of such meeting.

I further move, that the Academy recommend to the Council to re-consider the whole business respecting the security and disposal of the property of the Academy, and that some proper means be adopted to obtain for the Academy such a chartered and legally corporate existence, as will connect it with the nation, and as the most dignified, simple, and best adapted method of precluding litigations or other embarrassments in the management of weighty property, in which great artists are so likely to be less experienced than more inferior people. The Academy ought not to hesitate on this occasion, when the great and respectable law authority (Serjeant Adair),3 whose opinion we have sought, has, with a delicacy worthy himself, insinuated this advice, in generous and liberal addition to his answer to the question on which he was consulted.

Whether the Academy shall, or shall not, endeavour to obtain this most satisfactory and best possible method of securing its property by a charter; I move, that some part of this property, which may exceed the necessary uses of the Academy and its commendable ordinary charities, be nobly and wisely employed in obtaining an extension of their space, for the exhibition of great works in sculpture, the want of which has been so long and vexatiously experienced and complained of.4 The introduction of works of this kind would be the best corrective for that tawdry, frippery relish, which the repeated exhibitions of the more trifling, inconsequential departments of painting is apt to generate. Let me add here (enclosed within a parenthesis), that the Academy has but very imperfectly discharged its duty to the public respecting those monuments of sculpture, the superintendance of which has been entrusted to them: and I must request your indulgence for my entreating and moving that this matter may be shortly enquired into, as prior to these deeds of trust confided to the Academy. I had the misfortune of recommending, in a printed work, disseminated on a very public occasion thirteen years since, that this confidence should be placed in the Academy.5 I therefore move, that a committee be appointed to enquire into the conduct which ought necessarily to be adopted by the Academy in all future references of public trust, whether of sculpture or painting, or even of architectural designs, in which the judgment of the Academy, properly and conscientiously called forth, might be of considerable advantage to the public.

I also move, that some part of our property be laid out in the purchase of some one or more exemplars of ancient art, and a room or rooms to put them in. This beginning, (which would come so gracefully and with such peculiar propriety from the Academy) would, with a generous public, that only wants such an occasion of directing its energy, soon fructify and extend to a National Gallery,6 which whilst it would complete the views of the Academy with respect to the education of its pupils, would also no less beneficially extend to the improvement and entertainment of the nation at large. There are many old famous pictures in this kingdom: whether any of these should be bestowed on this public gallery, or only lent to it for any given number of years, to be replaced by others, the end would be equally answered; and, by proper inscriptions on the frames, the public would know its benefactors, who would be paid in a glorious celebrity, proportioned to the utility and satisfaction they diffused.

A proper attention to the obtaining these desiderata,7 would not only appear more becoming the reputation of the age and nation, and more consistent with the noble, disinterested conduct hitherto adopted by the Academy, but would eventually and finally be more profitable and advantageous to the interests of superior artists, and the widows and relatives they may happen to leave behind them, than what has been proposed by dissipating this property of the Academy, in pensions annexed to the mere frequency of exhibition, without any regard to the degree of importance or contemptibility of the matter exhibited. Such a procedure would inevitably reverse all right, and produce mischief and dishonour instead of benefit. The nobler occasions of exertion do not so frequently occur, as those that are paltry and worthless, not to say mischievous; and the answer of Aesop's Lioness in the fable, would admirably apply in this case. 'You produce a great many at a litter, and often: but what are they? Foxes. I indeed have but one at a time, but you should remember that this one is a Lion.' 8 It is full time, Gentlemen, that we should recollect, in this Academy, that 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; and although, from the unfortunate combinations which sometimes occur, we have had more frequent occasion to decorate the exhibition walls with pictures of live or dead partridges, mackerel on deal boards, or such like human or other trifling matters, every whit as unmeaning and inapplicable to any great or ethical purpose; yet surely, if the Academy cannot every year gratify the public with a Gymnasium at Athens, or the Stadium at Olympia, it will ill become them to encourage, by their countenance and their pensions, so horrid and scandalous a reverse and degradation. These opinions, which I hope will meet the wishes of a majority of the Academicians, I am happy to deliver on such an occasion as the present, where they are so fairly, so necessarily called for; and that, whatever determination the Academy may choose to adopt in this business, these sentiments, either in the way of advice or protest, must now, in the order of things, remain upon their books, for the inspection of those who may come after us, and who, it is to be hoped, will have other and higher views of the concerns of art, than those arising from the undue, political artifices of combination and cabal.

JAMES BARRY