Milton Project

Sources: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 319-20; William M. Pressly, The Life and Art of James Barry (London. 1981), pp.153-54.

The English poet, writer and polemicist John Milton (1608-74) was one of Barry's favourite authors. The considerable impression he made on Barry's thought and aesthetics deserves close attention, not least for the ways in which Barry appropriates and adapts the aesthetics of poetry into the medium of art. What follows is a commentary on Barry's plan to do a series of illustrations prompted by moments in Milton's great epic poem Paradise Lost.

This Appendix owes a marked debt to the promptings of Fryer and the scholarship of Pressly.

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Barry and Milton

Barry's letters repeatedly allude to his high regard for John Milton, not least for his defence of liberty in seventeenth century England. Milton was a significant influence on Barry's liberal views of the American colonists, as is evident in his engraving The Phoenix or the Resurrection of Freedom (1776). [img] Milton is one of the mourners over the bier of Britannia, lamenting her demise and recognising her resurrection in America.

His painting of Adam and Eve, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771 [img] may well have prompted a later decision to work on several illustrations for Paradise Lost; a plan took shape in the 1790s. He wrote to Lord Radnor in 1794, of his hope 'to make another effort for the public very different, though not less important, by endeavouring to dress Milton in a way somewhat adequate to the weight and dignity of his matter, and to the reputation of the country and enlightened age we live in' (26 December 1794.

Fryer says this of Barry's admiration for Milton and of the scheme:

'It is well known that the purity of his taste had led him to the brightest and deepest fountain of poetic and historic imagery for the delineation of the Mosaic system of religion—that is, to the Paradise Lost of Milton. To the genius of Milton he paid such adoration and homage, that to rise to the height of his descriptions, he thought would be the fame of his pencil and the completion of a principal part of the subject he had in view. It was not a little to illustrate on canvass canvas what the poet had conceived, and that in the grand, solemn, and ethical way which such a poet had intended; yet Barry began his Miltonic designs with equal enthusiasm and effect; intending them but as a part of a great whole, which his own poetic fancy and power of invention was to supply.

'The temptation of Adam is probably the only one which exists on canvass, and this he painted at Rome, which is mentioned as a corroborating proof that at Rome he had formed his general subject. But he has left valuable drawings of the other parts, beginning with the triumph of Michael and the casting out of the evil angels from heaven; of Satan haranguing them after their fall; of his conflict with death at the gates of hell; of his escape from the nether world, and arrival at the palace of Chaos and old Night; his arrival in paradise; the descent of Uriel to inform Gabriel of the escape of an evil spirit; the detection of Satan by Ithuriel; our first parents after their fall; vision of human miseries ensuing on his posterity pointed out to Adam; the dismission from paradise.

'In the midst of these horrid scenes of rebellion, disobedience, divine anger, and punishment, which are too much in a continued series of paintings for human feelings to relish; like the great poet whom he was following, Barry knew where to introduce the reposes, to bring back the calm desired, and his designs of God the Son in the beneficent act of creating the world; of the angel in the bower conversing with Adam; of Adam and Eve in their state of innocence and bliss; of the same at their morning orisons; fill the mind with a pleasure in proportion to the agitation it had previously suffered.

'It cannot with certainty be said how many, and what other subjects he intended to take from the Paradise Lost, to exemplify the Mosaic theology; but the designs he left behind him pourtray portray , as may be seen by the above-mentioned series, the early relation of man with his Creator; the obedience enjoined and broken, and the consequence which was foretold to happen, "of death brought into the world, and all our woe."'

Over one hundred editions of Milton's poem were published during the eighteenth century, some of them with illustrations, the details of which have been thoroughly described in pioneering work by Collins-Baker (1948) and Marcia Pointon (1970). The first illustrated edition in 1688 with twelve copper engravings by John Baptist de Medina set the trend of providing one illustration for each of the twelve books. That is what Louis Cheron and Sir James Thornhill did for Tonson’s 1720 edition, and Francis Hayman for Newton’s 1749 two volume edition of the poem. The trend to have one illustration per book was carried on in France by the German painter Frederick Schall in the two volume Paris edition of Le paradis perdu in 1792, illustrated with twelve color stipple engravings. But this schema of one illustration per book gave way in the 1790s to a different momentum. Paradise Lost was suddenly the stimulus for several major painters, notably Barry, Flaxman, Fuseli, and Blake. Furthermore their work stood independent of any printed edition. Barry's plan differs from that of the many previous illustrators of Paradise Lost in that he did not choose just one scene from each book of the poem, but varied his emphasis: for example he has four illustrations from Book II and none from Book III. Fuseli's aim in his 'Milton Gallery' (1799) was to so arrange the pictures that they would generate their own inter-textual relationships for the viewer. By the end of the eighteenth century Paradise Lost had become a supreme example of the aesthetic of the sublime.

In addition the poem had an uncannily fresh topicality. Milton raised questions that had a direct bearing on what was happening in France - bondage, rebellion, obedience, free-will, subservience: Satan's rhetoric had the ring of the barricades: 'Free and to none accountable, preferring/ Hard liberty before the easy yoke/ Of servile pomp' (ii. 255-57). Thus there seem to be two phases in the development of illustrations during the century: those up to the 1780s and then a different approach in the post- Revolution era through into the nineteenth century.

An example: a Barry engraving and Milton's text

To provide a more exact sense of Barry's relation to this tradition I have chosen to give one example taken from a point in the poem which illustrators repeatedly represented: Satan in Hell showing defiance to God. Barry called his engraving, 'Satan and his legions hurling defiance toward the vault of Heaven' (1794-96) [img] How does Barry handle this moment in Milton's text? Predating Fuseli and Blake by a few years, Barry chooses to take his image from a point a little later in the text than did his predecessors, apart from James Thornhill. It is, typically for Barry, a dramatic, confrontational choice. Having summoned his forces off the lake, Satan now rallies them to hurl defiance at the Almighty. Barry's engraving conflates two moments in Bk I, the first (531-49) reads,

Then straight commands that, at the warlike sound
Of trumpets loud and clarions, be upreared
His mighty standard. That proud honour claimed
Azazel as his right, a Cherub tall,
Who forthwith from the glittering staff unfurled
The imperial ensign, which, full high advanced,
Shone like a meteor streaming to the wind,
With gems and golden lustre rich emblazed,
Seraphic arms and trophies, all the while
Sonorous metal blowing martial sounds;
At which the universal host upsent
A shout that tore Hell’s concave, and beyond
Frighted the reign of Chaos and old Night…
A forest huge of spears, and thronging helms
Appeared, and serried shields in thick array
Of depth immeasurable.

Barry includes much of the visual detail from this passage – the clarions, the standard unfurling, Azazel just beside Satan, and the host of angels bearing spears and shields and shouting heavenwards. The second Milton passage (663-69) provides the tonal texture,

He spake; and, to confirm his words, out flew
Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
Of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze
Far round illumined Hell. Highly they raged
Against the Highest, and fierce with grasped arms
Clashed on their sounding shields the din of war,
Hurling defiance toward the vault of Heaven…

Barry adapts this famous scene, appropriated notably by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), in at least one significant way. This is to do with light. Barry’s angels wave, not ‘flaming swords’, but the spears of the earlier passage, more like Roman legionaries; the light is not a ‘sudden blaze’ from the swords, but comes from the fires of Hell below to the left. Milton had earlier described the place Satan stands above ‘the lake with liquid fire’ (i.229) as ‘this mournful gloom’ (i.244). Indeed earlier still we were told, Hell, ‘as one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames/ No light, but rather darkness visible/ Served only to discover sights of woe’ (i.62-65). Medina and Hayman had foregrounded this aspect. Barry makes a radical departure from this imagery; he uses the light coming up from the flames below, rather than from above as in Blake, to emphasise the incipient power of Satan, so striking in its Michael Angelo-like physique, its defiant, pent-up aggression, the ‘uplifted spear’ ready to strike (i.347) and the shield raised in challenge, altogether more complex than Lawrence, more thrustful than Fuseli or Blake. As in Fuseli, Satan stands head and shoulders above the surrounding angels, his flaming hair sweeping back and he wears a crown – ‘He, above the rest/ In shape and gesture proudly eminent,/Stood like a tower’(i.589-91).

A second point is to do with the sheer scale of Satan in Hell. Milton repeatedly remarks on his huge size - like a Leviathan ‘which God of all his works/ Created hugest that swim the ocean stream’ (i.201-2), ‘stretched out [on the lake of Hell] huge in length’(i.209). In Milton he carries a shield ‘massy, large, and round… Hung on his shoulders like the moon’ (i.285-87). Satan’s spear in Milton is ‘equal with the tallest pine/Hewn on Norwegian hills to be the mast/ Of some great ammiral’ (i.292-94). But, as if appreciating the reader’s difficulty in visualising the scale of this Brobdingnagian figure, he tell us Satan held this massive spear as if it were ‘but a wand’ (i.294). This problem of size is more acute for the visual artist. Milton, like Swift later, conveyed scale by comparisons, by epic similes. That is not available in the medium of painting, so Barry elects to have the viewer see Satan from below and at fairly close quarters. Fuseli did the same, but Fuseli images his Satan almost alone. In Barry's illustration our eye moves upwards, invited to follow the lines and curves from the fallen angels upwards along Satan's physique thrusting to the top of the picture towards Heaven. This invitation in itself has a touch of awe. No sign here of Satan or his angels as standing with ‘their glory withered’(i.612). Rather the image captures the mood of Satan's words that prompted the show of a 'million flaming swords' – 'For this infernal pit shall never hold/ Celestial Spirits in bondage...For who can think submission? War then, war/ Open or understood, must be resolved' (i. 657-62). The engraving illustrates much of Barry's serious intent mentioned in his letter to Lord Radnor.

Pressly has reconstructed Barry's plan from known works, titles mentioned by Fryer, and sales catalogues. The outline is as follows: an asterisk indicates that an image has survived. The passage in the poem being illustrated is given by me in square brackets. Some images are provided.

    An outline of Barry's plan for illustrations of Milton's Paradise Lost.

  • 1. *Satan and his legions hurling defiance toward the vault of heaven. [Paradise Lost, i. 531-43, 663-69] [img]
  • 2. *Satan, Sin and Death [Paradise Lost, ii. 649f.] [img]
  • 3. *The Birth of Sin [Paradise Lost, ii. 755f.] [img]
  • 4. *Satan's ascent from Hell [Paradise Lost, ii. 629f]
  • 5. *Satan at the abode of Chaos and Old Night [Paradise Lost, ii. 959-67] [img]
  • 6. Adam and Eve with Satan just alighted in Paradise [Paradise Lost, iv.288-356] oil sketch.
  • 7. Adam and Eve in their state of innocence and bliss [Paradise Lost, iv. 492-502]
  • 8. Eve and her creation contemplating on her form reflected in the water [Paradise Lost, iv. 460f] oil sketch
  • 9. The descent of Uriel to inform Gabriel of the escape of an evil spirit [ Paradise Lost, iv. 561f]
  • 10. *The detection of Satan by Uriel [Paradise Lost, iv. 797f] [img]
  • 11. *Adam and Eve at their morning orisons [Paradise Lost, v. 136f]
  • 12. Raphael in the bower conversing with Adam [Paradise Lost, v. 451f]
  • 13. *Fall of the rebel angels [Paradise Lost, vi. 856f]
  • 14. *The Creation [Paradise Lost, vii] [img]
  • 15. *The temptation of Adam [Paradise Lost, ix. 856f] Painting of c.1767; etching 1776. [img]
  • 16. *Discovery of Adam and Eve [Paradise Lost, x. 101f] [img]
  • 17. Vision of human miseries ensuing of his posterity pointed out to Adam [Paradise Lost, xi]
  • 18. *The expulsion from Paradise. [Paradise Lost, xii. 632-40] [img]