Letter from R.J.L. to JAMES BARRY, written ante 11 May 1783 , at London

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 257-68.

The writer gives no further details about himself than his initials R.J.L. In an article in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, George Croly (1780-1860) attributed the letter to Edmund Burke, arguing, 'he determined to give the artist the full advantage of his advice. But probably his knowledge of the capricious brain with which he had to deal forced caution on him, and he wrote without a name' ('Edmund Burke V', Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, (October, 1833), 492). Extracts from this letter are included in Croly's article.

The letter is written after a visit to the exhibition of Barry's six murals The Progress of Human Culture in the Great Room of the Society of Arts which opened to the public on 28 April 1783. Barry replied on 11 May, saying he received the letter 'last night'.

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As you have submitted your works to public inspection before they are finished, in order to avail yourself of any observations which may be made upon them,1 I conclude that any individual who offers you his opinion generally and in detail, and his reasons for entertaining that opinion, will not only do you a real service, but likewise act towards you with that kindness and civility, which it becomes every member of the community to observe towards a man who has certainly laboured with very meritorious zeal and industry to serve it. This all must allow, whatever their opinion may be of your success, though I think there can hardly be two opinions concerning your work, considered generally, and with relation to its main design. It certainly surpasses any work which has been executed within these two centuries,2 and considering the difficulties with which the artist has had to struggle, any that is now extant. As I flatter myself that these difficulties are now at an end, I shall consider the work abstractedly from them as a great effort of modern art, which from its splendid and substantial merits is likely to have a great influence upon the taste of the times, and in this light is of general importance, and demands the attention of every individual, to contribute as much as he can to render it perfect; for it is well known that trivial errors are of great consequence in great men, and great works; for those imitators who cannot reach their merits will surpass their faults. As you have explained your own principles,3 I shall, in the first place, make a few observations upon them as being of more importance than the execution of your work;—the faults in the latter affect only artists or great judges of art, but faults in the former affect the whole community when they come from persons of high reputation.

Your distinction between abstract ideal character and beauty, and imitative, is undoubtedly just, but I think you carry it too far when you depreciate the one to raise the other.4 So far from setting them at variance, it behoves every friend to the art to endeavour to evince the necessity of uniting them. Without the power of combining and abstracting, the most accurate knowledge of forms and colours will produce only uninteresting trifles: but without an accurate knowledge of forms and colours, the most happy power of combining and abstracting will be absolutely useless; for there is no faculty of the mind which can bring its energy into effect, unless the memory be stored with ideas for it to work upon. These ideas are the materials of invention, which is only a power of combining and abstracting, and which without such materials would be in the same state as a painter without canvass, boards, or colours. Experience is the only means of acquiring ideas of any kind, and continued observation and study upon one class of objects the only way of rendering them accurate. The painter who wishes to make his pictures (what fine pictures must be) nature elevated and improved, must first of all gain a perfect knowledge of nature as it is; before he endeavours, like Lysippus, to make men as they ought to be, he must know how to render them as they are:5 he must acquire an accurate knowledge of all the parts of the body and countenance: to know anatomy will be of little use, unless physiology and physiognomy are joined with it, so that the artist may know what peculiar combinations and proportions of features constitute different characters, and what effect the passions and affections of the mind have upon these features. This is a science which all the theorists in the world cannot teach, and which can only be acquired by observation, practice, and attention. It is not by copying antique statues, or by giving a loose to the imagination in what are called poetical compositions, that artists will be enabled to produce works of real merit, but by a laborious and accurate investigation of nature upon the principles observed by the Greeks, first to make themselves thoroughly acquainted with the common forms of nature, and then by selecting and combining, to form compositions according to their own elevated conceptions. This is the principle of true poetry, as well as of painting and sculpture. Homer and Shakspeare had probably never seen characters so strongly marked as those of Achilles and Lady Macbeth,6 at least we may safely say that few of their readers have, and yet we all feel that these characters are drawn from nature, and that if we have not seen exactly the same, we have seen models or miniatures of them. The limbs and features are those of common nature, but elevated and improved by the taste and skill of the artist. This taste may be the gift of nature, the result of perfect organization, and the skill may be acquired by habit and study; but the ground-work, the knowledge of limbs and features must be acquired by practical attention and accurate observation. And here, Sir, that portrait painting which you affect so much to despise,7 is the best school that an artist can study in, provided he studies it, as every man of genius will do, with a philosophic eye, not with a view merely to copy the face before him, but to learn the character of it with a view to employ in more important works what is good of it, and to reject what is not. It was in this view that the great painters of the Roman and Bolognese schools collected such numbers of studies of heads from nature, which they afterwards embellished and introduced in their pictures, as occasion required. Hence that boundless variety which is observable in their works; the want of which is the only material fault of your great and masterly picture of the Olympic Victors.8

I do not mean to recommend to the historical painter to make his works an assemblage of caricaturas, like those of Hogarth,9 and some of our present artists; but as there is scarcely any character so insipid that a Shakspeare or a Fielding10 would not have been able to discover something peculiar in, so there is scarcely any countenance so vacant but that there are some trifling features which may be of use to a skilful and ingenious artist though it seldom or ever happens that any character of countenance is sufficiently strong and perfect to serve of itself for the hero of a poem or picture, until it has been touched and embellished by the fostering hand of the poet or painter.

Portrait painting may be to the painter what the practical knowledge of the world is to the poet, provided he considers it as a school by which he is to acquire the means of perfection in his art, and not as the object of that perfection.

It was practical knowledge of the world which gave the poetry of Homer and Shakspeare that superiority which still exists over all other works of the same kind; and it was a philosophic attention to the imitation of common nature (which portrait painting ought to be) that gave the Roman and Bolognese schools their superiority over the Florentine, which excelled so much in theoretic knowledge of the art.

I was the more sorry to see any censures drop from you on this branch, because it will give little snarlers an opportunity of saying, that with a spirit of pedantry common to all arts and sciences, you censure what you cannot attain. I am one who think you can attain it, if you would turn your attention that way; and I sincerely wish you would, because there is no doubt but that, if you possessed the imitative powers only in the degree which Mr. Gainsborough11 does, added to the poetical taste and genius which now animate your works, you would be the first artist that has appeared since the revival of arts. It was in the combination of these two powers that Annibal Caracci12 excelled; you have indisputably surpassed him in the one, and it will be your own fault if you do not rival him in the other.

I entirely agree with you that the rage of the inhabitants of this country for having their phizes13 perpetuated, whether they are worthv of it or not, is one great obstacle to the advancement of art; because it makes that branch more profitable than any other, and therefore makes many men of great talents consider it as the ultimate object of their art, instead of the means of that object. But there is another error on the contrary side not less fatal, which is the contempt our young artists are apt to entertain for the lower detail of nature, and the forward ambition which they all have of undertaking great things, before they can do little ones—of making compositions before they are acquainted sufficiently with the constituent parts. We are told that many ancient artists bestowed their whole lives upon a single composition.— Such was Apollodorus who made the Laocoon,14 and Lysimachus who made the famous Hercules,15 destroyed by the Crusaders at Constantinople in the 13th century, together with many more of the sublimest productions of Grecian art and genius. We are not to suppose that these great artists employed so many years in chipping one block of marble, but that the greatest part of the time was employed in studying nature, particularly the vast and intricate branches of physiology and pathology, in order to enable them to execute perfectly the great works which they had conceived. These sciences are in a manner neglected by the moderns, but the author of the Laocoon was as deeply skilled in them as Haller or Gaubius,16 and hence he has been able to give that consistency of expression which prevails through the whole body, from the face through every muscle to the ends of the toes and fingers. I was once told by a person who had spent many years in experiments and investigations of this kind, that every discovery he had made disclosed to him fresh beauties in the wonderful group of Laocoon, and that to understand it thoroughly would require to know more of the human body than most of our anatomists attempt to know. It is not enough to know the forms, positions, and proportions of the constituent parts of the animal machine, but we should know the nice changes that are produced in them by the various affections of the mind, as grief, agony, rage, &c. Without this we may produce splendid compositions and graceful figures, but we shall never approach that perfection to which the ancients arrived. A perfection, to which I fear the very constitution of modern society is an insurmountable obstacle. Such a minister as Pericles17 might perhaps overcome it, but considering the present system of education, it is scarcely possible that such a one should appear. To distinguish between what is good and what is bad falls to the lot of many, but to distinguish between what is barely good and what is truly excellent falls to the lot of few, and it very rarely happens that any of these few are kings and ministers, who are able and willing to reward an artist for giving up his whole time to one object, which he must do, if he means to make it truly excellent.

There is another erroneous principle which seems to have crept into your book, which is extremely general in the present age, and is a principal cause of our faulty taste. This is the confounding greatness of size with greatness of manner,18 and imagining that extent of canvass or weight of marble can contribute towards making a picture or a statue sublime. The only kind of sublimity which a painter or sculptor should aim at, is to express by certain proportions and positions of limbs and features, that strength and dignity of mind, and vigour and activity of body, which enable men to conceive and execute great actions: provided the space in which these are represented, is large enough for the artist to distinguish them clearly to the eye of the spectator, at the distance from which he intends his work to be seen, it is large enough. A space which extends beyond the field of vision, only serves to distract and mislead the eye and to divide the attention. The representation of gigantic and monstrous figures has nothing of sublimity either in poetry or painting, which entirely depend upon expression. When Claudian describes a giant taking a mountain on his shoulders with a river running down his back,19 there is nothing sublime in it, for there is no great expression, but merely brute strength; but when Homer describes Achilles advancing to the walls of Troy, clad in celestial armour, like the autumnal star that brings fevers, plagues, and death, we see all the terrible qualities of that hero, rendered still more terrible by being contrasted with the venerable figure of Priam, standing upon the walls of Troy, and tearing his white hair at sight of the approaching danger.20 This is the true sublime—the other is all trick and quackery. Any madman can describe a giant striding from London to York, or a ghost stepping from mountain to mountain, but it requires genius, and genius experienced in the ways of men, to draw a finished character with all the excellencies and excesses, the virtues and infirmities of a great and exalted mind, so that by turns we admire the hero and sympathize with the man—exult and triumph in his valour and generosity, shudder at his rage and pity his distress. This is the Achilles of Homer, a character every where to be seen in miniature, which the poet drew from nature, and then touched and embellished according to his own exalted ideas. Had he drawn him with great virtues and great abilities, without great passions, the character would have been unnatural, and of course uninteresting; for a vigorous mind is as necessarily accompanied with violent passions, as a great fire with great heat. The same principle which guided Homer should guide the painter in studying after nature. He should attempt to copy and not to create, and when his mind is sufficiently stored with materials, and his hand sufficiently exercised in art, then let him select and combine, and try to produce something superior to common nature, though copied from it. But let him not imagine, that because he can produce great things, he can therefore produce good things, or that when he has covered a great extent of canvass with bold and hasty sketches, he has produced a fine picture, or sublime composition. Such works, compared with the beautiful and animated little compositions of the Bolognese school,21 put me in mind of Claudian's battle of the giants, compared with Virgil's battle of the bees.22 In the former all the objects are vast, but the action and expression extravagant and absurd, and the whole cold and uninteresting.— In the latter the objects are minute, but the action and expression bold and animated, and the whole together warm, clear, and spirited. I have seen a large cartoon copied from the little picture of the vision of Ezekiel by Raffael,23 in which the copyist thought, without doubt, to expand and illustrate the idea of the author; but by losing the majesty of the countenances, which makes the original so sublime, notwithstanding its being in miniature, his colossal copy became ridiculous, instead of awful.

It is with great concern that I have observed of late years this taste for false sublime gaining ground in England, particularly among artists. I attribute it in great measure to certain compositions, which have been extolled by interested prejudices, and admired by credulous ignorance, for no other reason, than because they were not understood. Few readers take the trouble of judging for themselves, so that when a work is ushered into the world with great pomp, and under the sanction of great names, its real merits are examined only by a few, the generality being content to admire, because it is the fashion to admire. If the work under these circumstances be pompous and unmeaning, its success is sure, as its pomp dazzles and its vacancy puzzles, both which are admirable ingredients to procure respect. This I think is the true way to account for the applause and admiration that have been given to those miserable rhapsodies published by Macpherson under the name of Ossian.24 They were ushered into the world with great pomp, as the productions of an ancient bard, and recommended by the respectable authority of Dr. Blair,25 aided by all the national prejudice of the Scotch. Few therefore were willing to allow that they disliked them, and still fewer bold enough to declare their dislike openly. Hence they have been received by many as standards of true taste and sublimity, which the author modestly declared them to be. The consequence of this was corrupting all true taste and introducing gigantic and extravagant tinsel, for easy dignity and natural sublimity. I attribute this false taste to these poems, because I see so many artists who have been working from them;26 all of whose works are tainted with it; and indeed it can hardly be otherwise, as the poems themselves (for so they are improperly called) are nothing but a confused compilation of tinsel and fustian, such as any one might write who had impudence enough to publish. Fashionable authors have great influence upon the taste of a nation: Seneca and Lucan27 certainly corrupted that of the Romans; and Homer as certainly formed that of the Greeks. Before his time, Sidon was the country of the arts, as he himself frequently mentions;28 but as soon as that spirit of true taste, elegance, and sublimity, which he had breathed into them, began to operate, they infinitely surpassed all other nations. The shield of Achilles29 contains all the beauties of picturesque composition which have ever been imagined; and Phidias owned that whatever expressions of majesty he had been able to give to his Jupiter, were owing to Homer.30 Why will not our modern artists continue to search this rich and inexhaustible mine, instead of copying the fantastic ideas of every ignis fatuus31 who catches the attention of the day? We have an excellent translation, or rather paraphrase,32 for those who cannot read him in his own language; and it cannot be said that his subjects are hackneyed, as few of the moderns have worked after him, and the works of the ancients are mostly perished. I am persuaded that understanding Homer well, especially in his own tongue, would contribute more towards perfecting taste, than all the metaphysical treatises upon the arts that ever have or can be written, because such treatises can only tell what true taste is, but Homer every33 shews it. He shews that the true sublime is always easy and always natural, that it consists more in the manner than the subject, and is to be found by a good poet or good painter in almost every part of nature. Could this truth be once established, I think a great obstacle to the advancement of the arts would be removed; but while a prejudice prevails, that great works must be of great size, and that sublime compositions cannot exist but in great space, it is impossible such compositions should be often attempted; for the size of the rooms and manner of furnishing them, necessary to make houses comfortable in a northern climate, exclude very large pictures. This prejudice is of modern growth, for the immoderate size of the pictures of Polygnotus34 at Delphi, was never looked upon as worthy of imitation in the more polished ages of Greece, but only to be defended on account of the vast variety of poetical beauties introduced by the genius of the artist. The finest works of Apelles and Zeuxis35 were either single figures, or compositions which did not exceed three, or, at most, five figures.

Having extended these observations much farther than I at first intended, I shall defer entering into a detail of your work until I know your sentiments of what I have already written, which, if you think worth while, you will direct to R. J. L. at the Cocoa-Tree, Pall-Mall.36