Letter from JAMES BARRY to EDMUND BURKE, written 8 July1769, at Rome

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 170-74.

Barry's uneasy relationship with connoisseurs, dealers and critics in Rome that surfaced in his letter to the Burkes of 23 May 1767 had now come to a head.

Full display

Rome, July 8, 1769.

My Dear Sirs, 1

Though nobody writes to me, yet I can pick up agreeable tidings of you from the newspapers, and reports here.2 Some how or other the figure that you have made in the late great questions, has swelled me up into an intoxication of happiness; what do I mind a vile catalogue of an exhibition, in which all that is of worth and value in the kingdom is shamefully turned upside down?3 I prepare myself to hear that you are more abused in proportion as your abilities come to unfold themselves to the world; but I must content myself with saying thus much, though there surely can be no reason to suppose any feigned warmth or attachment in me, when you are the subject. With regard to my situation here, there is nothing that can happen to spoil my relish for the good news of my friends. Notwithstanding the high opinion I have of your knowledge and discernment, and the just sense that I have of your friendship for me, yet I am sure that you, and even all the wisdom of the world, could not have contrived a thing that would have served me so effectually, as the malice and opposition of my enemies have done. I saw from the beginning that I was hated, (though I kept much of it a secret from you) and hated for the very dispositions I relied upon to recommend me; I saw every avenue of assistance shut up from me by their power and industry, except that glorious one of my profession, and I endeavoured to take a sure hold of that; my love of art naturally, and my desire of not disappointing your good intentions in sending me hither, would have, no doubt, called forth all my industry; but that was nothing to the stimulus which urged me on, and as the cause was virtuous, I found myself of that stubborn disposition either to conquer or perish in it; so that I went seriously to work and left to them the Cavaliers,4 and the wasting away of their time in dressing up phantoms and distorted maccaronies5 in my name; so that if nature ever did any thing for me in the way of genius, it has had all the fair play and justice, that almost unexampled unwearied application to the best things could do for it. My enemies themselves see it now, and it only serves to embitter them the more. I would to God that Hussey, (in whose steps I have been long treading) had been provided with a little of my stiffneckedness, and he would not have, foolishly, and in a pet, thrown up his abilities and his art. 6 I am loth to mention Hogarth, though his memory ought to be blamed for his ungenerous treatment of my poor Hussey. 7

I have finished my studies after Raffael in the Vatican,8 and I have been a long time in the Capella Sistina, so that it is impossible for you to imagine what an enthusiast I am for Hussey's drawings since I came more nearly acquainted with Raffael and the antique9. For God's sake, send me some account of him. Is he still alive? and is it yet possible to get him to do any thing for his country. I am acquainted with two of his friends here, and shall be happy to let them know something about him. It is a great pity that he did not perceive the possibility of gathering roses out of that path which his enemies sowed with thorns for him; of this I am so clearly convinced, that had I a friend or brother to send here, and could have any dependence upon the strength and firmness of his mind, I would wish him of all things to be thrown into the same situation that I have experienced; where his mind might grow strong by the exercise opposition will give him, and his conduct require to be so guarded and watched as to give opportunity to weed out all the asperities of his disposition: his knowledge of men and the world would be much, and the knowledge of his profession more. All these advantages may be had in such a situation, as you know well: and it has been my endeavour to turn it to as good an account, as my portion of ability was capable of: and my dear sirs, be assured of this, that however disagreeable it was to me to be obliged to live at variance with them, yet I am now satisfied that it was the true regimen for such a habit of body as mine: had I lived quietly and upon good terms with them, much time would have been wasted away in eating and drinking, and lounging, &c. I should have contented myself perhaps with some particular portion of my art, and neglected the proper correctives for my deficiencies, which were many; but when they attacked my colouring for example, I went to study Titian, and soon had the pleasure of seeing them silent upon that head.10 Correct drawing, style, and invention, were what they knew to be the main objects I always had before me, so that I found them in the end reduced to the pitiful shift of giving up my character as an artist, and with an affected candour allowing me even merit there, in order to take away from me as a man—and indeed this was more in their power, for though the body and the soul of a picture will discover itself on the slightest glance, yet you know it could not be the same with such a pock-pitted, hard-featured little fellow as I am; and from my being constantly at work upon all the fine things of art, which the travellers visit, they are as constantly necessitated to give daily vigor to their villany against me, so that I shall be surprised if you have not been frightened with the terrible accounts given of me; but they serve for me and my friends here to laugh at, as we are in the secret, and know that nothing of this can stick, since these cavaliers never so much as spoke to me, many of them never saw my face, and none of them my work, so that I see nothing even to hinder my being on good terms with them hereafter; as I detest as much as themselves, the shocking figure of the raw-head and bloody-bones that has frightened them.

I have been longer in the stanzas11 of Raffael at the Vatican, than I imagined it would take me, and though I have been some time in the Capella Sistina, yet I believe it will take me a month longer or more; after which I shall wish to return to the antique for another month; so that, God willing, about Christmas I shall be ready to wait your commands what route I shall take, and as I shall never have an opportunity of making this journey again, I could wish that you was content I should just see Venice, and I am indifferent about any thing else now: perhaps if my stay here was delayed till March, the weather would be more favourable to my scheme of profiting by the journey; but in this I shall be entirely determined by you. No doubt it is to your attention to the great and interesting national business that I am to ascribe the silence of the family for this long time past, for it is not possible that the weak malice of my enemies could have attempted upon me in a quarter where I am so well known; but this is idle.—You, I am sure, heartily rejoice, as I have reason to do, with me in a persecution which has been productive of so much substantial good.

I wrote an answer some time ago to a most obliging friendly letter which I received from Sir Joshua Reynolds.12 I am really happy at this other mark of distinction which is bestowed upon his unquestionably superior talents. Nobody rejoices more than I do to find the world inclined to make those acknowledgements to abilities and virtue. I am yours, my dear sirs, with every epithet that can belong to one entirely devoted to you, and to the whole family.

J.B.James Barry

If you have an entire confidence in this good news I send you of myself, you will not be sorry for it when you see me, and what I have been doing. You will be so kind to remember me to whomsoever you think it will be agreeable.