Letter from JAMES BARRY to EDMUND BURKE, written February 1770 , at Rome

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 174-78.

The letter is undated; William Burke replies on 24 April 1770 with news that Barry's 'five cases' mentioned here have not yet arrived in London. This suggests Barry wrote about two months before William Burke's reply.

Full display


Dear Sirs,


The enclosed is the bill of lading for five cases, which, except a few things in my head, contain all that I am worth in the world. There is a Laocoon, the Torso of the Belvedere, the fighting Gladiator, &c.2 and in the smallest of the cases. No. I. are cases, No. 1, are three copies after Titian.3 I wish you to open this last mentioned case immediately on its arrival, as there is also in it my picture of the temptation of Adam. If it should be in time for the exhibition, and that Sir Joshua Reynolds can procure a good place for it near the sight, he will exceedingly oblige me in putting it in, but if it cannot be near the sight; let it not be exhibited at all.4 As I shall set out for5 Rome by the beginning of next week, I hope by the blessing of God, to be in England about June next. The journey cannot fail of producing something in the way of improvement, and if you know how I have spent my time since my coming to Italy, you would be persuaded that my industry stands in no need of the spur, as my studies have been altogether concentered upon the antiques6, and the heads and great originals of the Italian schools; I shall have very little to delay me after quitting Rome, except at Venice, and perhaps at Parma. I shall have a sort of curiosity to look a little into the beginnings of art at Florence and Venice, for at present I am but little satisfied with the accounts of it, which the Italians have published.7

The belief that Cimabue, Giotto, and Taffi, were the restorers of art, and improvers on the Greeks, is with me rather suspicious;8 for there is at the church of St. Maria in Cosmedin, a picture of the Madonna and child, as large as life, done with some skill, and brought from Greece in the time of the Iconoclasts.9 There is also in the Vatican library the Russian calendar with some hundred figures painted in it, and the Greek artist's name at the bottom.10 There is a taste, spirit, and ability in the figures of this calendar, which is not to be met with in any other work of art executed in Italy from the time of Constantine, or at least from the time of Charlemagne, down to the age of Masaccio in the fifteenth century.11

The pictures in the two gospels of Charlemagne's time are abominably bad in every respect. Some Bolognese and Roman writers say that Vasari has given a false account both of the infancy and perfection of modern art, in order to do the more honour to his countrymen, the Florentines;12 and perhaps there may be also some reason to complain of them all, as Italians are not over just in what they say of the works of the Greek Christian artists. This is a matter, to be sure, of very little importance, and which I should have taken no notice of, had it not been for a search of another nature that I have taken up lately. I have no doubt you will consent to my publishing of it, when you see it, and until then, I shall say no more about it, except that it is short, touches but upon a few things, and takes up but little time. The studies and proofs of my industry that I can produce before you on my arrival, put me out of all fear of your upbraiding me with mispending misspending my time in enquiries foreign to my real business here; and although I go over with poor hopes, and I think a melancholy prospect enough, yet this arises rather from my fears about the taste of the public, than from the knowledge I have of myself. I shall say nothing about the catalogues of fish, fowls, fruits, roses, snuffers of the moon, &c. which have been produced in your exhibitions.13 I have seen them all lately, and I begin now to think that I have taken the wrong end in my studies, and that the antiques and old Italians are more sought after from their characters, which are upon record, than from any real feeling of their excellence. My poor master, Hussey, is dead,14 and was always but little noticed, and yet there was in his time a great noise about pictures, and painters were much employed. Your friendship and feeling for my interest are, I think, as visible in the warm picture you have drawn of my contentious disposition, as in any other part of your generous conduct towards me; but then shall I assure you that I am not that censorious inspector and publisher of the defects of other artists. No; you know me better, notwithstanding what you have said, and I know that, whether from my vanity or virtue (if I have any) you will never meet with an artist, more warm and just to the merit of his brethren, or more inclined to overlook their deficiencies than I am. I love art and consequently cannot hate an artist of abilities, and I am persuaded that the writings of Du Bos, Winkleman,15 and others, have given the world such an unfavourable idea of our people, that nothing can save us from the imputation of barbarians, but our producing a set of artists, who will altogether throw a noble lustre on the different branches of art. This is only what can bring the nation into notice with foreigners; a miserable fellow, who would monopolize to himself all the character for knowledge and abilities in art, would defeat his own schemes, for let him be supposed to have ever so great skill, yet he must unavoidably be enveloped in the general obscurity of his country.

You know I began my Adam and Eve shortly after my arrival here. This I hope will be some apology for whatever defects you may see in it, though I confess I touched it over very lately in many places. If you will, after it is exhibited, give it away as a present to some acquaintance of yours, you will oblige me—but only I should be glad that you kept the three Graces after Titian, and the half figure of the Madonna with the child, as they are studies, which may serve to regulate my future conduct in coloring colouring . The large picture of Raffael at the little Farnese, of Cupid demanding Psyche from Jupiter, a copy of which is at Northumberland-house, is a picture, which though not of Raffael's execution, yet is with reason looked upon as one of his greatest inventions.16 In it are all the gods and goddesses of antiquity, from Jove to Hermes.17 I have always spoke my mind out to you, and I shall do the same now. There is not one of all those figures that either agrees with the antique statues, or with the character and description of the deities in the writings of the Greek and Latin poets. I am quite clear that this great defect, which runs through all Raffael's works, where he has treated heathen subjects, would have been remedied, had the cultivation of Greek learning in Italy preceded the labours of their artists. I am encouraged by this difference, that I see in the characters of this picture, from the poets and antique statues, to go on with a very beautiful and interesting subject, and almost similar, which I have taken out of a Greek poet, and where all those personages make their appearance. The studies I have made from the antique, will, I hope, with the use I shall make of your reading and opinions, carry me through this work. You will see a large drawing of it, on my arrival, which has got me some credit with the few people to whom I have shewn it.18

O ! I could be happy on my going home to find some corner where I could sit down in the middle of my studies, books, and casts after the antique. to antique, to paint this work and others, where I might have models of nature when necessary, bread and soup, and a coat to cover me. I should care not what became of my work when it was done; but I reflect with horror upon such a fellow as I am, and with such kind of art in London, with house-rent to pay, duns19 to follow me, and employers to look for. Had I studied art in another manner, more accommodated to the nation, there would be no dread of this, but Hussey's fate is before me.20

At my instigation, Mr. Morrison the antiquary has sent to the academy a cast of the Torso of the Belvedere.21 I told him I would mention it to Sir Joshua Reynolds, to whom Morrison's correspondent is to send it: Sir Joshua will, I know, excuse my writing to him.