Letter from JAMES BARRY to ANON, written 5 March 1798, at Castle-Street, London

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, ii. 602-11; this letter was first published in the Appendix to the second edition of A Letter to the Dilettanti Society (1799).

The person Barry writes to has not been identified; the letter indicates he was a friend in London who sympathised with Barry's campaign against what he regarded as malpractice in the Royal Academy. Among the possible addressees is his friend Giuseppe Bonomi (1739-1808) who had come to London from Rome in 1767 and established himself as a draughtsman and architect; or possibly Philip Neve of Furnival's Inn, London, a barrister, officer of the peace, antiquarian and coin collector (Carol Barton, '"Ill fare the Hands that Heaved the Stones": John Milton, a Preliminary Thanatography', Milton Studies, 43 (2004), p. 241, note 71). The confidence Barry has in the recipient suggests he might well have been the same person to whom he wrote on 4 August 1799.

This letter gives striking evidence of Barry's extraordinarily detailed grasp of the inner workings of the Academy, its constitution, and the powers of its various officers and committees. It evidences his clear, orderly perception of practical affairs, both administrative and financial, as well as his commitment to the national aims of the Academy.

Fryer indicates that Barry heads the letter ' March 5', which may be a mistake for 4 March since the meeting 'last night' was on 3 March; Barry did not finish the letter until 17 March.

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Castle-Street, March 5 1798.

Dear Sir,

It was my intention to have called on you this morning, in order to give you viva voce ,1 some account of the business carried on at the Academy last night; but as I have been obliged to wait at home on a matter which could not be dispensed with, I must now be at the trouble of transcribing for your perusal the notes which I made last night, after my return from the meeting at the Academy.—Good God ! when will all this scribbling about the cursed intriguing at the Academy be at an end? But no matter, we are in for it, and must therefore go on with patience. On the 28th day of February 1798, the following letter was sent me from the academy :

" Sir,

" You are desired to meet the president, and the rest of the academicians, on Saturday next, the third day of March, at seven o'clock in the evening, on particular business.

I am, &c.

J. Richards, R. A. Sec."

As nothing was specified by the vague words, particular business, my suspicion was excited that some new attack was intended on the little property of the academy. 2 At that meeting the business was, a resolution of the council, adopting a proposal made by the president, which was followed by a motion of Mr. Wyatt3, that the academy should give 500l. £500 4 in aid to government at the present crisis. 5 As I well knew this motion would be carried, and had little or no objection to it myself, I was resolved, by concurring in it, to try if the academy could not be persuaded to blend another matter with it, and good-humouredly, by a vote at the same time, of another 500l. £500 for the purchase of some old picture or pictures, for the use of the students, to make a beginning of that Repository of the materials for art, which had been so long the desideratum.6 After my having stated that this political call on the Academy for 500l. £500 might be repeated next year, and my difficulty of knowing where it would end, I requested, that before the Academy proceeded any further, they \vould permit me to read to them a few short observations on the application peculiarly attaching to the nature of that property acquired by the academy, with a motion founded upon those observations, which I had prepared, and which being but a few lines, would be no great trespass on their time; and I accordingly read what follows:

" As the Royal Academy was instituted with the commendable, patriotic view of giving foundation and efficacy to such a national school of art, as would be, if not adequate, at least not unworthy the high reputation the empire had attained to in all other respects.

" As the funds of the Academy have ever since its institution, for more than five and twenty years, been most becomingly, nobly, and patriotically employed in the endeavour of crowning the national reputation, by the happy addition of this graceful and only remaining ornament:

" And as the alterations that have recently taken place in Europe, make it no longer either practicable or eligible to continue the usage hitherto adopted by the Academy, of sending its pupils abroad for the completion of their education,7 I have now strong hopes of being supported with the countenance and concurrence of the Academy, in moving (which I now do), that of the 14,000l. £14,000 property the academy is possessed of, whatever part of it can be spared from the necessary uses of the Academy, and from its ordinary charities, as well as from the extraordinary assistance which I hope will not be withheld from such of its members as may be necessitated to apply for it, in this distressing and calamitous crisis of our affairs—whatever can be spared after these necessary attentions, I again move, that it be immediately laid out, by a committee appointed for the purpose, in the purchases necessary towards forming such a collection of the materials of study, as may be necessary for completing the views of public education in the arts, as well that of the pupils as of the people at large. There will be no use or need to think impracticably on this occasion, or that such a collection is wanting as that at the Louvre, in France; much less will do; for as in other cases, so in this, according to the wise application of the old adage, perhaps the half would, for many reasons, be better than the whole.8 Assisted with a few sound examples in the different walks of the art, which may be easily had, I should have no fears, that the genius of our people would need to shrink from a fair comparison with any thing that the proudest of our rival neighbours could oppose to us. I am well aware of the gallantry, high abilities, and great advantages of our rival brethren in arts, on the continent; and yet my greatest wish would be to see our artists fairly engaged with them. Let but the Academy do its part on the present occasion, by immediately giving a beginning to this necessary store-house of materials, and there can be no doubt but that all Europe would be entertained, and our rivals themselves not a little benefited, by the exertion which the desire of keeping pace with us would naturally occasion. This surely is the best, most becoming use that can be made of whatever means may be in the disposal of the Academy: this would be the proper, the most effectually antigallican use that could be made of those means: and it is but doing an act of mere justice to our rulers, in supposing that it is what they expect from us upon the present occasion. Since our very premier himself, in his Bill of the Assessed Taxes,9 has very wisely and humanely taken into his consideration the distressed state of the artists of our Academy at this crisis, and accordingly placed them on the same easy and moderate footing with the keepers of lodging-houses. This indulgence to the members of the Academy, this recognition of their inability to bear any great pecuniary pressure, is not imputed to them by the minister, as any derogation from the national importance of their genius and abilities, as he well knows that those pecuniary means and these important merits are not always commensurate. And by thus immediately and eagerly embracing this pressing occasion of employing your whole attention and means in furthering those important national views of art which have been committed to your integrity and care, you will give the minister the satisfaction of knowing that he was not mistaken in the good opinion he had formed of this Academy, which I hope on this and other occasions will be ever found to place its true glory in that artist-like exertion for the national reputation, which the king and people ought naturally to expect from them."

This motion was made by James Barry, March 3, 1798.

When I had done reading, Mr. Wyatt asked me (across the table), if my intention by the intervention of this paper, was to set aside the motion for the contribution of 500l. £500 aid to Government? My answer was, No; my intention is, that they should go together: and that the academy by thus expending 500l. £500 to give beginning to a Collection of Pictures, would thus manifest the necessity of the thing, and thereby induce the King and the Public to complete it. However, as no one offered to second my motion, it was necessarily withdrawn, and I accordingly cooperated with the rest in voting the 500l. £500 to Government, without saying any thing more respecting the desired Collection of Exemplars, the Pupils, or the Public. One of the .Academicians asked me (in the course of desultory conservation) what I meant by the 14,000l. £14,000 stated as the funds of the Academy, and whether I did not know, that the Academy at present had no unappropriated fund. Upon inquiry, I find he was in the right, and that these 14,000l. £14,000 had been disposed of in the pensions to the Academicians, Associates, and their relatives, mentioned in the 14th and 15th pages of my Letter to the Dilettanti Society, quarto edition,10 although his Majesty's acquiescence and signature confirming that resolution, had, to my certain knowledge, never been notified at the general meeting of the Academy. However, a fashion has obtained lately, of contenting themselves with what is known in the Council, without giving themselves any unnecessary trouble about the General Meeting of the Academicians.

Another particular which also occurred that night, tends to shew how completely this 14,000l. £14,000 property of the Academy is alienated from any other application of it than to the mere pension business, charity, and necessary ordinary expenses of the Academy.

According to the statement of the president, Mr. West, the 500l. £500 now voted to Government, is to be paid down directly to a Banker by the immediate sale of some part of our stock, or to be paid out of the produce of the first weeks of the next coming Exhibition; from the perplexed fumbling manner in which this was stated, it was difficult to decypher his meaning; but I believe we shall find that both these particulars, the sale of some part of the stock, and the produce of the coming exhibition, were conjointly implied in it. It is to be hoped that these first weeks of the coming exhibition11 will be very productive, and that the Academy may incur no risk from its recent initiation in the political trade of mortgaging its income to make splendid donations, or to what is even worse, in confining the application of this income, in the present and all the future stages of its growth and increase, to this mere pension business, which is so much in the disposal of the Council, or rather, of any influence or cabal which possibly might hereafter govern in the council. So much for political intriguing, combination, and cabal, mixed with the academical and interesting concerns of the Belle Arti .12 I hope there will never more be any occasion for my meddling in so hateful a matter, as there neither is, nor can be any other new property to tempt to any further enterprises of mischievous application.

You will, I hope, carry in your recollection, that the Council of the Academy is not (as many mistakenly have supposed) a permanent body of eight Artists, selected for their peculiar wisdom and skill, from the forty Academicians,13 the better to assist in regulating and governing the Academy, like the Privy Counsellors in the executive governments of great Princes; quite the contrary, our Council of the Academy is biennially changed, until all the Academicians have served in rotation, and according to the laws of the Royal Academy, and its uniform unremitting usage ever since its institution, for twenty-eight years, to the 7th of November, 1796.14 The authority of the Council appears to have been delegated from the general body of the forty Academicians, merely to compass two serviceable desirable ends; first, to obtain an executive instrument of authority, manageable and convenient, in order to superintend the due execution of the laws of the Academy already established; and, secondly, for the convenient and more manageable instrumentality of framing all new laws and regulations which might be thought necessary to add to the old laws, and which thus prepared and proposed by the Council, at the general assembly of the Academicians, were adopted or rejected according to the majority of the votes in that general assembly of the Academicians, and, if adopted, confirmed at the next meeting of the said general assembly: and still further, as to the one hundred pounds charity annually given away by the Academy, through the hands of its executive serviceable instrument the President and Council, the said executive instrument was directed and governed in the distribution of that charity by the discretionary consideration of the majority of the recommendatory letters of the several Academicians, or the pressing necessities of the poor claimants stated in those letters. And for all this service and trouble taken by the Council, two pounds five shillings was to be divided amongst the attending members at each meeting of the Council, four of which Council, with the President or his Deputy, being sufficient to make a Quorum, and the Secretary, who had a regular annual salary, not being included in the division of this money.

Since November 7, 1796, by the law passed on that night, if it can be considered as being regularly passed according to usage; but by that law, the Council thinks itself now completely empowered to dispose of the present and future income of the Academy in annual pensions of from fifty to seventy pounds each, &c. without any notice, communication, interference, or concurrence of the general assembly of the Academicians, who are thus henceforward superseded, and reduced to the condition of mere idle lookers-on. The Council has lately been applied to by certain members of the Academy for pecuniary assistance amounting to some hundred pounds; their determination on these applications they have never deigned to lay before the general meeting of the Academy, where the very interesting business of acquiescence or refusal would be attended with so much the more credit, or the less chagrin. Surely, if a power of such magnitude is suffered to operate on the property and feelings of the Academy, it would be much safer lodged with the Academy in its general meeting, than in the hands of a Council, which might be so much more easily influenced as well as appointed by a cabal.

Alas! poor Sir Joshua!15 how many melancholy consequences have taken place since your removal; what an error, and evil, to suppress or withhold any notes you might have left of the vexatious conflicts you had with this cabal. The publication of such matters would be attended with utility to those who come after great men, and who may and ought to derive at least this advantage of a luminous detection and discovery of those evils by which, perhaps for this very end, Providence permitted them to be so traversed and afflicted.

But as you may be desirous of knowing something more particularly of the nature of this pension business so often mentioned, however ardently I wish to have finally and for ever done with it, I will notwithstanding gratify you, by transcribing a few passages from our Abstract of the Instrument of Institution and Laws of the Royal Academy, which have been lately reprinted, and which I received from our Secretary on Monday the 5th of February, 1798, (on the night of my Lecture on Chiaro-Scuro).16 I ought first to state, that by the Treasurer's report17 of the 31st of December, 1797, the solid funds of the Academy were 10,000l. £10,000 and the charity fund 7,500l. £7,500 . What I shall set down here from our before-mentioned Abstract of the Laws, &c. begins at page 27.

" The money received at the Exhibition, after payment of the annual or contingent expences, and the usual charitable donations, shall be hereafter applied towards the increase of the Stock in the Three per Cents. Consolidated Annuities, which shall be called the Pension Fund: And when the said stock shall amount to ten thousand pounds, the Council shall have power to give the following pensions, viz. To an Academician, a pension not exceeding fifty pounds per annum, provided the sum given does not make his annual income exceed one hundred pounds.

" To an Associate a pension not exceeding thirty pounds per annum, provided the sum does not make his annual income exceed eighty pounds.

" To a Widow of an Academician, a pension not exceeding thirty pounds per annum, provided the sum given does not make her annual income exceed eighty pounds.

" To a Widow of an Associate, a pension not exceeding twenty pounds per annum, provided the sum given does not make her annual income exceed fifty pounds.

" When the fund shall be increased to fifteen thousand pounds, the Council shall have power to give the following pensions, viz.

" To an Academician, a pension not exceeding sixty pounds per annum, provided the sum given does not make his annual income exceed one hundred pounds.

" To an Associate, a pension not exceeding thirty six thirty-six pounds per annum, provided the sum given does not make his annual income exceed eighty pounds.

" To a Widow of an Academician, a pension not exceeding thirty-six pounds per annum, provided the sum given does not make her annual income exceed eighty pounds.

" To a Widow of an Associate, a pension not exceeding twenty-five pounds, per annum provided the sum given does not make her annual income exceed fifty pounds.

" When the fund shall be encreased to twenty thousand pounds, the Council shall have power to give the following pensions, viz.

" To an Academician, a pension not exceeding seventy pounds per annum, provided the sum given does not makes make his annual income exceed one hundred pounds.

" To an Associate, a pension not exceeding fifty pounds per annum, provided the sum given does not make his annual income exceed eighty pounds.

" To a Widow of an Academician, a pension not exceeding fifty pounds per annum, provided the sum given does not make her annual income exceed eighty pounds.

" To a Widow of an Associate, a pension not exceeding thirty pounds per annum, provided the sum given does not make her annual income exceed fifty pounds.

" Every Academician, Associate, Widow of an Academician, and Widow of an Associate, who is a claimant for a pension from the Royal Academy, shall produce such proofs, as the President and Council may require, of their situation and circumstances; and in this examination the President and Council shall consider themselves as scrupulously bound to investigate each claim, and to make proper discriminations between imprudent conduct, and the unavoidable failure of professional employment, in the Members of the Society; and also to satisfy themselves in respect to the moral conduct of their widows.

"Any Academician or Associate who shall omit exhibiting in the Royal Academy for two successive years, shall have no claim on the pension fund, under any of the regulations above-mentioned, unless he can give satisfactory proof to the President and Council, that such omission was occasioned by illness, age, or any other cause, which they shall think a reasonable excuse. This limitation not to extend to Sculptors, who are to be allowed three years, nor to Academicians or Associates, who have attained the age of sixty.

" These pensions shall not preclude any Academician, Associate, or their Widows, in cases of particular distress, arising from young children, or other causes, from receiving such temporary relief, as may appear to the Council to be necessary or proper to be granted. But it is to be strictly understood, that this Pension Fund shall, on no account, be considered as liable to claims to relieve such difficulties. All sums paid on account of claims of such nature, shall be carried to the current expences of the year.

" After the Pension Fund is made up twenty thousand pounds three per cents, all future savings shall be vested in the public funds, and be applied to the general purposes of the Academy."

A few queries naturally occur here, viz. In any essential alterations in the places, or new acquisitions to the objects of study in the Academy, is it not still the duty of the Council previously to lay the matter before the General Meeting of the Academy, either to be determined by its united skill, or by any Committee it may think proper to appoint for that express purpose?

As the authority of the President and Council is a derived, and subordinate authority, extending no further than to the framing and proposing new laws for the consideration of the Academy, or to the over-seeing the due execution of the laws already established, it cannot be a query, and the President and Council (for many other and weighty reasons, besides their having no authority or commission from the Academy for it,) most assuredly ought not by any means to be permitted to treat with the Minister, with any Corporation, or any other people of importance, respecting any matter where the honour or interests of the Academy may be concerned, without the complete and entire knowledge of the Academy, who ought to supervise all the stages of the progress of such transactions, in order that no impediment from mismanagement, or other cause, might disable the Academy from terminating such transaction with honour and satisfaction. The honour and interest of the Academy absolutely require this; the President and Council might be utterly inadequate in many cases that might occur, and they ought not in any case whatever to be permitted to envelop any thing with mystery and concealment; nothing should ever be permitted to be smuggled, as erasure and undoing would in some cases be utterly impracticable, and in all cases must ever appear unbecoming, odious, and disgraceful to such a body as the Royal Academy of Great Britain.

The absolute necessity for this cautious prudence of the Academy must be very apparent, even from what occurred at the very last meeting of the 3d of March, 1798. When the proposed business of that meeting, consisting of Mr.Wyatt's motion of 500l. £500 aid to Government, was read to the Academy, and sure to meet its general concurrence, a Member (Mr. Farrington)18 got up and said, he had been privately informed that there was something else connected with that motion of Mr. Wyatt's, and that he wondered much why it had not been read. After some boggling and difficulties, it was at last acknowledged, that the motion was indeed ushered in by a little preamble from Mr. West, 19 the President, the reading of which preamble was not judged necessary to the business in hand. The cry of, Read it immediately, coming from every side of the table, the Secretary20 complied; and the Academy, on hearing it, rose up with indignation, and ordered that the two leaves which contained this preface or preamble should be immediately erased—torn from the book. It was then observed, that as this was the book of the minutes of the Council, the erasure could not be properly made but by the Council themselves. The Academy immediately appointed a committee to retire into the next room, in order to draw up another preface, which they could admit without shame or loss of dignity: and when they returned with it, the Academy retired to another part of the room in which they held their sessions, and left the table to the Council to make the necessary erasure, and the insertion of the alteration, which they did accordingly. On inquiry since, I find the two leaves have actually been torn from the books of the Council. I am persuaded, however, that this erasure was a rash, ill-judged measure, and that it would have been much better to have left the whole matter standing faithfully in our books, and to have inserted the alterations as minutes of the next meeting; and this would certainly have been done, had the Academy had the advantage of that recollection which a second meeting would have afforded; as such a memento would stand usefully, and exemplarily on their books. It would be a good illustration of the perilous nature of all sinister transactions, the success of which depends either on previous concealment, or subsequent effrontery, or both; for if this matter had not been fortunately brought to light at the general meeting, it must however at some time or other have been generally known, that the next morning after that meeting a transaction was laid before his Majesty, as coming from the Royal Academy, of which that Academy had no knowledge whatever, and which never could be known to it, without exciting its disgust and reprobation. After all, perhaps there is little to value in the most refined Machiavellian politics;21 it might have pushed this instance of mere illiterate mother cunning one or two removes further; but they must both eventually be found to terminate in the same disgrace. Surely, if the most unreserved and generous openness and publicity is peculiar, and to be expected in any matters, it ought to be in those of the most liberal of arts, and of a Royal Academy where the King himself deigns to be its chief and patron. However, fortunately, this unbecoming transaction was only between the council and the Academy, where the opportunity was still in reserve of saving our credit, by availing ourselves of the very cultivated understanding and information of several valuable members of our body. But in lieu of the Academy, had this been a transaction of the mere president and council (unaided by the Academy) with his Majesty's ministers, or with any other society, or people of importance, it must chill with horror to think of the consequences. Revoking, alteration, erasure, would be then impossible, and the Royal Academy, however innocent, must inevitably be committed without remedy.

It may be proper also to mention another particular of some importance, as well from its immediate effects, as from the possibility and probability of its being hereafter converted into a precedent. I am informed that the president and council have notified by public advertisement, that the admittance to the exhibition, including the catalogue, is raised to one shilling and sixpence. Query, is not this a matter of such magnitude as ought not to be presumed upon without the knowledge, authority, and confirmation of the general assembly of the academicians? If such a licence is permitted, it may be extended or contracted to—but it is no less vexatious than disgraceful to dwell longer on a subject of such humiliation to the importance and authority of the Royal Academy; and therefore to finish, and come to our immediate point, you may now see clearly that the funds of the academy are already so disposed of, that there remains no further expectation from that quarter for the collection of the materials for the study of our young painters, so often mentioned. Our only hopes now remaining must be from his Majesty and the public: if something be not done by them in this way, the Academy, the pupils, and the lovers of art, must go without, and steer their course as well as they can amidst the perils and difficulties of fraud, folly, and ignorance, to which they are so peculiarly exposed in this country. I have the honour to be, &c.

James Barry

Castle-Street, March, 1798.