Letter from EDMUND BURKE to JAMES BARRY, written 13 July 1774, at Beaconsfield

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 234-38; also Burke, Correspondence, iii. 7-9.

Burke responds to Barry's angry letter of 11 July in the ongoing contretemps about Burke having to make an appointment to sit for his portrait which had been commissioned by Burke's friend and physician Dr. Richard Brocklesby.1

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I have been honoured with a letter from you, written in a style, which from most of my acquaintances I should have thought a little singular. In return to an apology of mine for an unseasonable intrusion, couched in language the most respectful I could employ,2 you tell me that I attack your quiet and endeavour to make a quarrel with you. You will judge of the propriety of this matter, and of this mode of expression.

When I took the liberty of offering myself to sit for my picture on Saturday last, I could not possibly mean to offend you. When you declined the offer in the manner in which you declined offers of the same kind several times before, I confess I felt that such importunity on my part, and on such a subject, must make me look rather little in the eyes of others, as it certainly did in my own. The desire of being painted is one of the modes in which vanity sometimes displays itself. I am however mistaken, if it be one of the fashions of that weakness in me. I thought it necessary, on being dismissed by you so often, to make you at length some apology for the frequent trouble I had given you. I assured you that my desire of sitting solely arose from my wish to comply with the polite and friendly request of Doctor Brocklesby. I thought I should be the more readily excused on that account by you, who, as you are a man informed much more than is common, must know, that some attention to the wishes of our friend even in trifles, is an essential among the duties of friendship: I had too much value for Dr.Brocklesby's to neglect him even in this trivial article. Such was my apology. You find fault with it, and I should certainly ask your pardon, if I were sensible that it did or could convey any thing offensive.

When I speak in high terms of your merit and your skill in your art, you are pleased to treat my commendation as irony.3 How justly the warm (though unlearned and ineffectual) testimony I have borne to that merit and that skill upon all occasions, calls for such a reflexion, I must submit to your own equity upon a sober consideration. Those who have heard me speak upon that subject have not imagined my tone to be ironical; whatever other blame it may have merited. I have always thought and always spoke of you as a man of uncommon genius,4 and I am sorry that my expression of this sentiment has not had the good fortune to meet with your approbation. In future, however, I hope you will at least think more favourably of my sincerity; for if my commendation and my censure have not that quality, I am conscious they have nothing else to recommend them.

In the latter part of your letter you refuse to paint the picture, except upon certain terms. These terms you tell me are granted to all other painters. They who are of importance enough to grant terms to gentlemen of your profession may enter into a discussion of their reality or their reasonableness. But I never thought my portrait a business of consequence. It was the shame of appearing to think so by my importunity that gave you the trouble of my apology. But that I may not seem to sin without excuse, because with knowledge, I must answer to your charging me, that "I well know that much more is required by others,"5 that you think far too highly of my knowledge in this particular. I know no such thing by any experience of my own. I have been painted in my life five times; twice in little, and three times in large. The late Mr. Spencer, and the late Mr. Sisson painted the miniatures.6 Mr. Worlidge and Sir Joshua Reynolds painted the rest.7 I assure you upon my honour, I never gave any of these gentlemen any regular previous notice whatsoever.

They condescended to live with me without ceremony; and they painted me, when my friends desired it, at such times as I casually went to admire their performances, and, just as it mutually suited us. A picture of me is now painting for Mr.Thrale 8 by Sir Joshua Reynolds; and in this manner; and this only. I will not presume to say, that the condescension of some men forms a rule for others. I know that extraordinary civility cannot be claimed as a matter of strict justice. In that view possibly you may be right. It is not for me to dispute with you. I have ever looked up with reverence to merit of all kinds; and have learned to yield submission even to the caprices of men of great parts. I shall certainly obey your commands; and send you a regular notice whenever I am able. I have done so at times; but having been, with great mortification to myself, obliged once or twice to disappoint you, and having been as often disappointed by your engagements, it was to prevent this, that I have offered you (I may freely say) every leisure hour that I have had sure and in my own possession, for near two years past. I think a person possessed of the indulgent weakness of a friend, would have given credit to the irregularity of the calls of my little occupations, on my assuring him so frequently of the fact.

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. You say a picture is a miserable subject for it; and you say right. But if any one should have a difference with a painter, some conduct relative to a picture is as probable a matter for it as any other. Your demanding an explanation of a letter,9 which was itself an explanation, has given you the trouble of this long letter. I am always ready to give an account of my conduct. I am sorry the former account I gave should have offended. If this should not be more successful let the business end there.10 I could only repeat again my admiration of your talents, my wishes for your success, my sorrow for any misfortune that should befal11 you, and my shame, if ever so trifling a thing as a business of mine should break in upon any order you have established in an employment to which your parts give a high degree of importance. I am with the greatest truth and respect, sir,

Your most obedient,
And most humble servant,

Edmund Burke.

Beaconsfield, 12 July 13, 1774.