Letter from 'FRESNOY' to JAMES BARRY, written 19 May 1773, at London

Source: Morning Chronicle, 19 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.

'Fresnoy' here gives his opinions on the paintings by Barry in the current exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Full display

To JAMES B****. 2

Now Hayman take the Poppy from thy brow
and place it here! here all ye Artists bow!
This, this is he, foretold by antient rhymes,
The Painter born to bring Saturnian times.


It is a misfortune of a very serious kind, when a man wilfully blinds himself to the good works of others, and reposes, with a full confidence in his own, as containing all the excellencies of the living, and those that have lived. This, Mr. B. is your case: you have vilified all past and present merit, and with a prismatic tongue, thrown ten thousand false lights on your performances, which, seen through any other medium, appear beneath the notice of criticism; and indeed you would not have been troubled with one word from me on your pictures, had not your public insolence called for my reprehension. You exhibited your Adam and Eve , your Venus , your Medea , your Chiron and Achilles ;4 did I lift my pen? No. But when I saw you pillaging the sacred temples, and defacing the faithful works of the antients that your own unnatural productions might succeed, when I saw you sickening and maddening at the pencil of Sir Joshua, when I heard you execrate all modern artists, without distinction; I then thought it necessary to add to your stock, a little knowledge of yourself. You are one of those men, Mr. B. who study to be blockheads, and travel to be blackguards; and, when they have finished their education, return to perplex us with a multiplicity of incomprehensible ideas, and damn us, because we don't understand them. Does it follow, if you chusechoose to paint a cartoon,5 and swear that it surpasses Michael Angelo and Raphael ,6 that we are to believe you? No, Sir, the faculty of eyes is as perfect as ever, in spite of your curses on it. When we hear you fulminating in praise of yourself, and delivering over to eternal oblivion all past and present masters in the art, we eagerly search for your works, and are astonished to find them - devoid of the FIRST principles.

Oh Thou! whatever title please thine ear,
Blackmore, Bobadil, Pistol, Swagger -

I think Blackmore bites the closest, who was as fond of the sublime, and as successful in the Bathos, as Mr. B****.

Sir Richard Blackmore7 - (Behold another KNIGHT!)

No. 29, Suffolk-street, Hay-market.8

No. 360. Portrait of a gentleman.9 It was most kind and humble in you, Sir Richard, to quit the lofty Ida10 and descend among us to take upon you the menial business of Portrait Painting. It is not for me to develope develop your great designs; but I dare say it was graciously meant to shew what portrait painting was. I shall never be able to bear the sight of another Vandyke11 or a Reynolds: I pity the latter, who will now be obliged to quit his sphere, and brave all the perils of the impassioned scenes of history; but it seems he had some monitary hints of your descent, Sir Richard, and knowing the necessity o to which he would be driven by the appearance of your portraits, he painted a noble family starving in a goal gaol ,12 that he might engage the compassion of the public to himself; and it is believed the spectators were so affected by this picture, that he will not lose one of his friends by your exhibition in his way; and some have been wicked and blasphemous enough to declare that he has excelled even you in your way. Evil for good, you know, Sir Richard, is the common pay here below: Oh! we are a perverse generation! They say, Sir Richard, this picture of Nugent is an admirable picture, if the drawing and colouring could be forgot; but there is no judging of heavenly things with mortal eyes.

No. 361. Ditto. Another!13 Bless me! how very gracious you are, Sir Richard! This portrait beggars all censure. But was there no other man in the kingdom, Sir Richard, that would sit to you but Mr. B - i ? I suppose the choice of him for a subject was merely out of your benignity and meekness to human kind; for the proud Sir Joshua did not care to have such hangman's work in hand; and though he saved the murderer from the gallows, he was, notwithstanding, too tender to execute him when in effigy. I beg to mention one small mistake you have made, Sir Richard, in this portrait. You ought to have buttoned his shirt after the string was about his neck, for that, it seems, is the Tyburn Etiquette;14 and, for the omission of which, Jack Ketch15 will not pardon Sir Richard Blackmore himself. Your intimacy with this amiable slip-gibbet does you much honour, Sir Richard; never were two such enemies to nature so cordially and so successfully allied. I am told he has made you a present of his KNIFE for the pallet,16 that your colours may take a tincture from friction, and kill all beholders. I have often heard you talk of striking us dead with your pictures, and now I have discovered your reason for making use of this violent language - Par nobile fratrum ! 17 - I am rather surprized, Sir Richard, you did not use this mortal instrument in preparing your colours for the portrait of your friend (I beg pardon, your brother I ought to have said); but you thought that his looks alone would do the business; and perhaps you were right; for though he be fat and sleek-headed, there are as many daggers in his face as all Italy can shew. I wonder what apology you can make, Sir Richard, for exhibiting the picture of a man who ought to have transported himself, in gratitude to this country, for his forfeited life; but, I see it is evidently your determined resolution, to put every insult on the public, and for no other purpose but merely to indulge that malignancy of nature, which disappointed criminals always play upon JUSTICE.

Your friend P.P.18 has told me that you are painting a Hercules.19 I beg, Sir Richard, you may not put the club in his hand, for fear, as your pictures are full of horrible imaginings, he should long to knock out your brains. Is it not rather extraordinary that this P.P. of yours, after reading my last two letters, should cry with the Duke in the play, "That strain again?"20 I am much angry with this P.P. for leaving me so soon; for he was as good as snail broth to me in a morning. I dare say Nature has thrown out some distinguishing marks of this animal in the person of P.P. for he is of the black kind, and has an admirable talent at drawing in his horns - I will say that he is flat in the belly, and round in the back, slow, and yet irregular in his progress, beslimes each salutary plant and flower in his way, and the injuries he does them, serves but to contradict his intention, by pointing out to the spectator their superior excellence.

I shall now take my leave of you, Sir Richard, and as titles are things few men forget, you will remember, with thanks, that you owe the honour of Knighthood to me. The king is as bold as Achilles,21 with the innocent sword of state, and lays it on any shoulder that comes in his way;22 but to be touched into rank by the pen is a dignity far beyond the heavy stroke of cold iron. Now, that I have put a feather in your cap, I will put spurs to your heels, Sir Richard -

Back to thy native land,
False fugitive! and to thy speed add wings,
Lest with a whip of scorpions I pursue
Thy ling'ring.


ERRATUM in last.24 - Instead of writing, read knitting up your ravell'd character. Instead of worthy God, read worthy a God. Instead of greatest, read grossest violations. Instead of rainbound, read brainbound.