Letter from JAMES BARRY to LORD BUCHAN, written 3 July 1805, at Castle Street, London

Source: MS RSA AD/MA /104/10/403, Royal Society of Arts, London.

Another version of this MS, written on the reverse side and concluded on the front page of an invitation to Barry from the Society of Arts, 6 May 1805, is in the Barry Papers and Letters, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. That version, which is shorter, seems to be an earlier draft of this letter and can be consulted in Appendix A 1.

The Scottish antiquarian and art collector David Steuart Erskine (1742-1829), earl of Buchan, [img] had been working to persuade the Society of Arts to set up a fund to assist Barry in his old age; on 7 February 1805 the Secretary of the Society Charles Taylor had thanked Buchan for his initiative (see Society of Arts to Barry, post 7 February 1805).

This letter also includes Barry's draft of the appendix he had wanted the Society of Arts to publish in 1803 in their guide to his pictures in the Great Room and to his engravings from them.

Full display

My dear Lord

The enclosed papers will convey some account of what has been done in Consoquence Consequence of your Lordships Lordship's kind interference with the Society for the Encouragement of Arts &c in my behalf, & you would have had them sooner, but, that I waited to give you some information of their having been communicated to the Dublin Society 1 & honoured by the being inserted in the Journal of their Transactions, as appears by the printed sheet wch which I saw yesterday with M.r Caleb Whiteforde,2 & was enclosed in the Letter he received two days before from one of their Vice Presidents the learned & very justly celebrated Gen.l General Vallency.3 Here My Lord, is a great effort made, wch which it were to be wished should terminate in something relative to that species of Art wch which is interesting to the Publick.4 I pray God, it may not have arrived too late & that I may be enabled to get the better & to overrule the lassitude which haunts me & is continually furnishing apologies for my declining further attempts of vigorous exercion exertion . - however tis However 'tis to be hoped that by at last economizing & sparing myself in personal domestic concerns about the things not essential to Art, I may be the better enabled to concentrate the little forces that may be left, & give myself entirely to those that are: however this also depends upon my being able without much delay to find a place fit for the carrying on of my work, as the place I am in is no longer habitable,5 nor capable of being made so for me. No longing can be more than mine is, to get to my work, & as to this publick effort wch which is likely to effect it, I am determined no not to perplex myself by useless enquiries whether this effort agitated in three Kingdoms, is to be considered in the way of remuneration for what was done, or of redress for the outrages & clogging interruptions almost ever since 1783 when my Work was exhibited at the Adelphi,6 with the additional invidious brutalities consequent to that dispute with the Royal Academy7 in which so much had been sacraficed sacrificed to duty, or principle or the publick service, or rather to all of these (see page 251. Letter to ye the Dilletante).8 Whatever might be the motive inducing to this publick effort in my behalf, & from whatever quarter it might come, high or low, agreable or dissagreable agreeable or disagreeable to our wishes & expectations, as the Choice is not ours, accquiescene acquiescence is becoming & I feel myself disposed to accept with gratitude & thankfullness thankfulness whatever may enable me to make the best use in my power of an Art so truly Ethical & so very capable of extending to the deepest interests of Society, whether our hitherto precipitate shortsighted party politicians will allow themselves the leisure to be accquainted acquainted with this fact or not; perhaps unlookily unluckily, they are too much in the way of being deceived by the impertinent interference of what is called Connoisseurship,9 the abuse of wch which has been already so mischievous in the heaps of Art of all descriptions with wch which , from the convulsed state of Europe this Country has been so inundated.10 However altho although I am pretty well tired of reasoning & remarking upon the matters of Art which should or should not, might or might not be applicable & becoming our situation & views in the 19.th century, Yet yet I will here allow my self myself to transcribe something relative to this matter, as adapted to those local & temporary views wch which only can make Art peculiar & nationally & morally interesting. Your Lordship will excuse the reference to that work of mine at the Adelphi with wch which it commences as I had drawn it up as the Finale of that little Book of the account of the pictures 11 wch which is distributed in the Great Room of our Society of Arts & wch which with some little matters in the other parts, was, very much to my dissatisfaction omitted in the printing of it & of wch which I felt myself obliged to complain in a Letter printed in the monthly Magazine12 of Sep. September 1803.

“It is no small satisfaction in the conclusion of this little account13 to observe that the magnitude of the figures of those illustrious personages in the Groups of the large prints, affords something substantial under the eye, wch which like the matter occurring in that excellent work of the Roman Conversations by Wilcox,14 cannot fail calling back to our recollection, scenes of Action & dignified conduct the most exemplary & profitable, wch which , as the very pabulum15 of Virtue cannot be too often in the meditation of those whe who endeavour at the formation & welfare of themselves, their relatives & their freinds friends . The eye can fix on no part or groupe group of the long range of this illustrious association wch which will not administer occasion to the most interesting biographical details, unconfined by any predilection for any one Country or class of men. Such a Man as the excellent Alphonsus of Arragon Aragon & Naples,16 would find much better matter & more for his purpose in those groups of the Elysium17 thus associated & in action, than in the few Medals that good King was able to collect for his “Cassette d’Yvoire qu’il fasoit porter partout avec lui. L’Auteur de sa vie nous apprend qu’on lui a souvent entendu dire, que la vue de ces monumens, etoit pour lui un puissant eguillon, que l’excitoit a imiter les vertus de ceux dont ils representoient l’image,18 see la Bastie’s preface to the Science des Medailes of Pere Jobert Paris 1739.19

From a just consideration of the growth & expansion of Knowledge, it must be very apparent that in many cases the monuments of the Art of one Age will be but ill adapted to meet the occasions & wishes of another. For the Design, whether wisely comprehensible, or difficult to be understood & in the inert, or contracted state of ignorance, & the several degrees of skill in the mechanical conduct & execution of any work of ye the Art of painting, can be only a result from the mass of knowledge wch which forms the education of the time & can never be identically the same in any two periods. During the growth of Art, from Cimabue20 in the 13 Century, down to our times, many ingenious Artists have been successively employed in perfectionating the different parts of this most complex of all Arts, the Art of Historical Painting, which as it embraces the whole of visible nature, & still further, even demands all the conceivable cultivated perfections of possible Nature; An an Art so immensely comprehensive, necessarily required a long time in arriving at its Achme.21 When we reflect on the laborious mechanical pursuits, & the reiterated sucessions successions of them wch which have been employed in perfecting the drawing, the Chiaro Scuro22 & the colouring wch which are the component parts of this great Totallity Totality & which have been sometimes almost seperately separately pursued with a predilection peculiar to each Artist, & even to National Schools of them. When all this is properly considered, it will fully account for the immense number of pictures of the several schools, wch tho which though very excellent, & worthy of attention for the particular part wch which was the main object of the painter who executed it, is but too often of little value for the rest. (see page 13023 Letter to the Dilllante SocDilletante Soc.) These pictures however are collectively of great consequence to Artists, in enabling them to accquire acquire the skillful skilful mechanic of their profession, & for this reason wise Governments & great Princes, cannot be too assiduous in collecting them in large Galleries consecrated to the publick service, as materials usefull useful to National Art. But if unhappily, this matter should be so far mistaken by the ridiculous affectation of Connoiseurship Connoisseurship , so as that all pallaces palaces & houses of nobles & others, where there is any space for pictures, should from the rage of this affectation, be so filled with such works of Art, so little corresponding with the desiderata24 of our times, there is an end, not only to the exerctions exertions of National Art, for wch which no space will be left, but even to the Art itself, as there will not, there cannot be any Art for us, that is to say, any Art wch which has relation to those possibilities of perfection & application wch which the superior advanced information of these latter ages entitle us to look for; & thus, altho although , an Artist may look for, & can find a Cui bono 25 in these old Masters worth his investigation, as he can employ it very differently in other arrangements of ideas, matter & manner, better comporting with the education & desiderata of his time; yet as to the publick at large, who are unequal to the task of making this extraction, there is no Cui bono for them, their time is idly wasted in search of what is wanting in almost all they look for as of any importance to them; & the disrelish of their dissapointed disappointed feelings, of the truest & noblest kind, ye the most happily adapted to elevated art, & wch which can not be amused with a mere sounding outlandish name of this or that Master, of this or that School; this disrelish, wch which is indeed the voice of God, speaking within them & calling out for melioration, is notwitstanding notwithstanding by the pedants of Art & Connoiseurship Connoisseurship very unjustly & absurdly retorted back on them as a proof of their mauvaise gout26 & want of those exalted feelings.”

Some such remarks as these, may not be wholly without use at a time when so many of our Noblemen & Gentlemen are talking, associating, subscribing & agitating the publik public mind so much on the subject of a National Gallery27 & Schools of Art.

I am very happy in your Lordships Lordship's recollection of my little Sketch for Milton & his Family.28 - The matter of it is equal to anything & if I might use a fashionable phrase (tho though perhaps ‘tis not vernacular) such a domiciliary visit, ought to be & might in better hands than mine, be highly interesting & heroical & would pair well with his own idea of the dignity of Quintius, Fabricus, Curius, Regulus29 - Those names of men so poor, who could do mighty things. Par. Reg.d30 - however equal or unequal to all the dignity of the subject, it affords something so congenial to my own feelings, that I long to get at it, whenever by the mercy of God I shall be enabled to sit down in some peaceful habitation proper for the occasion. With a heart fully sensible of what under God, I owe to the providential interference of your Lordships Lordship's unremitting Zeal & Kindness.

I remain your ever most affectionate & devoted humble Servant

James Barry

Castle St 29. July 3. 1805