Letter from 'FRESNOY' to JAMES BARRY, written 3 May 1773, at London

Source: Morning Chronicle, 3 May 1773.

‘Fresnoy’ was a pseudonym, probably for James Wills (fl. 1740-1775), chaplain to the Incorporated Society of Artists (William T.Whitley, Artists and their Friends in England 1700-1799, 2 vols. (London, 1928), ii. 272-75). He published De arte graphica; or, The Art of Painting (1754), a translation from the French critic Charles Alphonse du Fresnoy (1611-68). As curate of Whitchurch and chaplain to the Society, he published, A sermon preached at St. Paul's Church, Covent-Garden, on Monday the 19th of October, 1767 before the Incorporated Society of Artists of Great-Britain. He was also a painter with what he called ‘a passion for history painting’ (cited by Whitley, Artists and their Friends, p.274).

He is best remembered for his attacks, first on Sir Joshua Reynolds1 who, along with others, left the Incorporated Society of Artists to start the Royal Academy, and second on Barry. His opening remark in his sermon - ‘I cannot…omit congratulating you on the present State of Arts in Great Britain’ – gives a clue to his scorn and criticism of people like Reynolds and Barry who held quite the opposite view.

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To JAMES B - Y.2

THAT you have had every advantage an artist can possibly have, is not to be denied; you have studied in all the repositories abroad, you were there supported by your friends, 3 and in such a manner that you never were under the necessity of drudging for interest; no, Sir, they meant you should, and you did, study for instruction only; and, lastly, you were master of your time. No artist ever left this, or any other kingdom upon a more liberal plan. But if, instead of seeing the canvas animate at your touch, we are to be stunn'd with a sesqu'pediality of words, if our ears are to be made the judges of what you can do, and not our eyes of what you have done, why then I will tell you, Mr. B - y, that you do most abominably deceive yourself in the attempt; for if you exhibit a picture of an Adam and Eve that throws us all into an epileptic; a Venus that gives us an ague; a Medea that sends us in crowds to the bog house; and a Chiron and Achilles 4 that shuts up our senses and leaves us in a state of torpor; surely, Sir, you cannot suppose but that we will remember these violent operations; you cannot imagine, however apt your mind at improbabilities, we shall again listen and give credit to your drunken fustian. It is true, Mr. B - y, you have had impudence and lung enough to keep our attention from your works, for some years, by howling over our heads your mustard-bowl eloquence; which indeed so terrified us, that we did not dare to make public what we so severely felt from your performances. Never had we such a Stentor5 amongst the artists before! Mr. M - r6 is a pretty, little, fancy orator, but compared to you he is a very mute. I would advise you, Mr. B - y, to retire to Tewksbury,7 where, by the capacity of your mouth and the weight of your tongue, you will find employment from year to year; for as long as beef is in fashion - you know the rest.8 It is time then, Sir, to inform you, that you are now the ludibrium 9 of every company where you have ever appeared; and the sale of your works has convinced you, that the effects of them is9 considered as baleful as nightshade, under whose influence none can exist, without injury, but yourself. I know the most beastly self-adulation is common enough in Scotchmen and Irishmen (worshipful society!); but when I hear you maligning the greatest characters amongst the antients to exalt your own, and the imperious solemnity of your contempt for the moderns, I own I lose my patience. For instance, and in your own words: 'Raphael was a very ingenious young man.' This, Mr. B - y, is in the true spirit of damning with faint praise.10 Again, in your own words: ' Sir Joshua Reynolds! why he knows no more of the art than my A***.' Thou art the best of all blackguards, get thee to Tewksbury. The works of Raphael11 are of too high and sacred a nature to suffer the smallest injury from the slaver of your mad tongue; and Sir Joshua Reynolds is too fine a painter to be hurt by your fallacies; from your pencil he has nothing to fear. You are now at a time of life, when every man, who has written or painted well, has produced his best works; nay, Raphael died when he was ten years, at least, your junior. Now, you know, Mr. B - y, that, if it would save your soul from eternal perdition, you cannot paint a picture, where so much simple knowledge of the art is shewn as in that of the Strawberry Girl,12 by your friend Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose ignorance is your constant theme in every place, but at his own table where you are a constant guest; I am amazed he will suffer you to enter his doors; for he must have heard of your notorious calumnies; but, perhaps, you have frightened him too. Never was there a more pleasing circumstance to me than your admission into the Royal Academy. 13 Hail to the anarch old!14 I know your designs, Mr. B - y, go on; to reign is worth ambition, though in Hell.15 Sir Joshua is slow in his resentments; and your purpose will be effected ere he apprehends you his enemy; if he does not take this hint from a man, who had he lived in this time, would have admired and praised him, viz. 'Hic niger est, hunc, tu, Romane, caveto.' 16

You have long blessed us with a promise of soon giving an Account of the Rise and Progress of the Arts and the faults of all the masters; 17 I tremble for poor VESARI and FELIBIEN; 18 why will you keep us so long on the tiptoe of expectation? It is cruel, very cruel, in you, Mr. B - y; but you would something emulate the modesty of your friend and patron Mr. Edmund Burke may be; who, when he passes us, seems disordered and blushing at the regard he draws; and indeed for ought I know it is not seems; for brass has its verdigriose verdigris. I pray you, Mr. B - y, in whose hands is this curious manuscript so long and so much praised by the author? Is it in the study of your friend Dr. Johnson? 19 most likely; for your friend Dr. Goldsmith 20 has lately told us that Samuel is a wit. This, I think, is the only new idea in the pamphlet of She Stoops to Conquer ; for we have often heard of the wisdom, but never before of the wit of an elephant: I should as soon have expected to hear Dr. Goldsmith assert that Dr. Johnson dances as well as Slingsby .21 When, I say, when will the public, fainting with desire peruse this account; for the people of England, Mr. B - y, are never more impatient than when they expect something that will puzzle them? To be sure, Mr. B -y, you have a number of friendships among the literati;22 and that I should think would hasten your account: but let me advise you, Sir, in this case, touch not the pen; for if you do, the literati will swear that you write admirably, intoxicate you with praise, persuade you to print, and when you are taken out of the press and laid before the public, they will laugh at you like the muses23 at a bagpiper.24 Never read nor think of Sir Joshua's Discourses:25 no, rival him in his art, and then attack him as an author; yes, rival and attack him with a Euneuch's spite. Sir Joshua Reynolds has long been the quarry on which, at some convenient time, you have wickedly determined to throw yourself; but take care, Sir, there are some quarries on which you will split as on a rock. Sir Joshua is not the only man, Mr. B - y, you have treated with perfidy, a perfidy that deserves - I know not what punishment: No, Sir, there are others who have as undeservedly felt the rigour of your diabolical slander: but if I do not crush the venom out of you, let it be said that I am no man and you no serpent. I shall examine your pictures in my next letter, with so strict an impartiality, that they shall sink under my rebuke.

FRESNOY