Letter from 'FRESNOY' to JAMES BARRY, written 10 May 1773, at London

Source: Morning Chronicle, 10 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.

Full display

To JAMES B****. /

Exerce imperia, et ramos compesce fluentes.

VIRG. Georg. 3

IN the vegetable world we see the Violet living unhurt and undisturbed, on the same bank with the Nettle. Nature seems to have given this hint to us, for the regulation of our manners in human society; but, alas! we neglect her kindest admonitions, though conveyed to us by instruments, whose reasoning and eloquence cannot raise our jealousy, nor touch our pride. Had you attended, Mr. B - ,4 to the lectures of this hour bona dea , 5 you would have learnt to live in peace with Sir Joshua Reynolds instead of attempting to cover him with your spiteful leaves, and crying Ecce Urtica! 6 I shall now, Sir, return from your conduct, as an artist to your works - Cedite Romani Pictores, cedite Graii. 7 Another time I may amuse myself by writing up your ravelled character, and framing it for public exhibition: at present, I am to speak to the few, not to the many, and therefore I shall not cavil at slight faults.


Homer's Iliad. 8

The persons and the place chosen are sublime. I will not, Sir, with your little pilfering spirit, even suspect any of your poetical friends on this occasion; no, Sir, the merit of the subject be your own. The Point of Time then is next to be considered. I will not insult your ignorance by the Text; no, Sir, I will come down to the level of your mind by quoting the best English translation.

Gazing he spoke, and kindling at the view,
His eager arms around the Goddess threw ---

What do you think, Mr. B. the god was gazing and kindling at? Why the view. Of what? Of a thing, Sir, worthy the admiration and passion of God, a thing that quickens every pulse and brightens every eye. But what is your God looking at? Nothing. His point of time is not the preceding fire but the sequent languor -

At length with love and sleep's soft power opprest,
The panting thund'rer nods and sinks to rest.

This is a blunder, Mr. B. of the first magnitude, not to say a word about the unpardonable fault of hiding the FRONT of Jove himself, sublime even in sleep. It appears then that you have come as near Homer's meaning in the expression of this figure as two of the cardinal points. The size of your God is to be commended, and the disposition of his hair admirable, quite in the post factum 11 stile style . If Mr. Stubbs 12 were to paint a poor dull spiritless gelding with his eyes half shut, and pass him on the public for a rampant stallion, what would you say, Mr. B.? That Mr. Stubbs was an impudent sightless blockhead, and ought to be punished for his folly.

Equally unjust to Homer have you been in Juno. The point of time - for if you will be talking and talking of time, you shall have enough of the time and the point too -

She ceas'd; and smiling with superior love,
Thus answer'd mild the cloud-compelling Jove.
Nor god nor mortal shall our joys behold,
Shaded with clouds, and circumfus'd with gold;
Not even the sun, who darts through Heav'n his rays,
And whose broad eye th' extended earth surveys.

The point of time, again, totally mistaken. Instead of smiling with superior love, your goddess looks as if she did not care a farthing about the matter; and her twisting the hair of his head about her fingers at such a time as this, argues so blind an insensibility, not only to the embraces of her best beloved, but to the favourite important scheme she came to effect, that Ideotism14 cannot equal. The peurility puerility of the drawing and colouring of the whole, where we see the greatest violations of the syntax of each, you will not contend for one moment; Partiality itself will see and confess this: The only merit you have in this picture, is the choice of the subject, and the size of your figures. Expression is the Soul of a picture, and you have been damning us for three years past 15 into an opinion that your works are full of the fine subtle spirit of the Antique. 16 The antique, Sir, is full of expression from the Colossus to the Gem; 17 the antique is perfect in all its parts. You tell us that your head is bursting with plenitude of knowledge of the antique: I pity you, sincerely pity you; for it is a melancholy thing to be so long rainbound, 18 if it be so; but I cannot believe you, Mr. B. 'till some of it come out at your Fingers ends. When a man has great ideas, he certainly may express them by his tongue, his pen, or his pencil; but as you never have expressed your ideas by any of these three powerful instruments; I cannot help doubting their existence. I will tell you what, young Sir Richard Blackmore,19 leave this sublime stile of painting, where ridicule and laughter follow your hand, and study the first principles of the art.


P.S. How could you, Mr. Woodfall,20 suffer that filthy slug P.P. to crawl down and blot almost a whole column of your fair paper.21

Erratum in my last. - Instead of 'the effects of them is considered,' read, 'the effects of them are considered.'