Letter from JAMES BARRY to EDMUND BURKE, written 13 February 1767, at Rome

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 77-82 .

Barry had now settled down to his studies in Rome and had started to work in the galleries there.

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Rome, Feb. 13, 1767.

Dear Sirs,1

As you desired in the last letter, I wrote to Sir Horace Mann, and enclosed the letter of Lord Shelburne.2 I received by return of the post, a most polite and obliging letter from Sir Horace, with a letter to Cardinal Albany, who is a great virtuoso,3 and said to be the protector of the English here, under the rose.4

I have been looking about Rome for some pictures of Raffael5 of a size that may not be too large for your rooms, but can discover none except Madonnas6 and such like. I would chuse7 to send you a copy of him in some classic story, which I believe you would like best, and of a composition pretty complex, in which I think he best succeeds. Without preferring or comparing his works together, (as we cannot have every thing answer our purpose) I should think of sending you a copy of the marriage of Cupid and Psyche; 8a copy of which is at Northumberland house in the great room.9 I remember you was as much pleased with this picture as I am, and I believe this and its companion, for the subject, characters, and style of design, are amongst the number, if not at the top of his chief works; the execution of these pictures is agreed not to have been his, and Carlo Marat 10has painted an infernal blue fondo or back ground to the figures, which makes them appear to a great disadvantage. There is a noble large style of drawing, in all these pictures of the history of Cupid and Psyche, which is not always seen in the works of Raffael, as he has been sometimes too finished in the detail, which makes him appear rather dry and petite. This picture is exceedingly large, and if you would chuse a copy of it, in your next letter send me an account of the size you would have it, the larger the better, as I think the story and characters require at least, not to be brought into too small a compass; the labour is nearly the same and the effect you know very different. If you should like better the Transfiguration,11 or the school of Athens,12 which were executed by himself, it will be still more convenient for me; as copying the Cupid and Psyche is attended with difficulties and disagreeable circumstances which the pictures in the Vatican are not. I need not say you may fix upon any pictures of other masters if you please, for now I am here, and am, thank God, most heartily contented, you have only to mention what you would have me copy, and the sizes you would have it, and I shall find the access every where very easy. Copying in the palaces here is attended with expense, in some more, others less; but I believe one with another, it may come to near three shillings English a week, which is always expected by the fellow who takes care of the place, and is not to be dispensed with, though one has ever so many licences from the master.

I have mentioned in my letter to Sir Horace,13 going to Florence about April next; now, if you think it advisable, one may defer going there for a couple of years, as I may do at any time, or at my return, whatever I can do there now; and besides, what with travelling, and one thing or another, the year will be almost gone without my being able to do much, and will be attended with expenses. I may write Sir H. a letter of thanks and mention something or other, which is likely to prevent my waiting on him so soon as I expected. But this just as you advise, only that I am desirous of sending you copies of whatever you like here, and it will come in very usefully between my principal studies. This making of the Roman school, but a sort of collateral study will, I believe, appear a kind of solecism in the world now-a-days.14 But though it is more probable that I am mistaken than the numbers of wise and reasoning artists and people, who think differently about the merits of the Roman school, yet, as I have great doubts about all kinds of reasonings, I shall in the matter of study regulate myself by two or three palpable and obvious facts.

First, the Roman school (which is indeed the best school) is only above the Venetian15 and Flemish16 in point of expression, style of design, and a just and dignified conception of the whole subject; yet in these particulars they are inconceivably below the select antiques;17 and in the painting and conduct of a picture, as much below the Flemings and Venetians. Secondly, those who were imitators of even the greatest of the Roman school, have made but little of it, and the best of them are much below, and very different from, one's idea of the perfection of art. Thirdly, as that which is most perfect is the most to be sought after, the antiques and select nature come in for design, &c. and any picture of the Venetians and Flemings, no matter how drawn, or what the subject is, fruit, bread and butter, any thing of theirs, will best shew how it should be painted. In studying the antique, one may observe now and then, the use Michael Angelo and Raffael made of it, and the Flemings and Venetians may be consulted for the mechanical part.18 As this is the result of the best observations I was able to make on all that I have seen, so I only wish for the future to follow it with that avidity and profit I have, I think, done since my arrival here. Although this may be thought too complex a pursuit, yet it is nothing to that which is generally followed.

People now, to be painters, copy and imitate every thing, Barocci,19 Murillo, 20Bernini,21 Carlo Maratti,Cortona,22 Mengs,23 and others of less note; in whom art is little more than a painted and varnished shadow, the substance being quite lost and evaporated by the multiplicity of mediums and reflections through which it has passed from one imitator to another. They go on, as I said, still grafting upon this perishing stock, that is of the species of a mule, which was never intended to succeed beyond the first transfusion;24 whilst invention and genius, which strengthens and comes to maturity only by the labouring and perpetual exercise of it, is lying either an uncultivated waste, or else choked up by what they transplant from this noxious soil. This is clearly the ignis fatuus,25 which has so long misled the artists, and that to which is principally owing the long decay of art; as certainly even less labour, more properly directed, would be attended with more success.

But that I am afraid of being tiresome, I would mention to you some curious systems of Abbate Wincleman,26 the pope's antiquary, and of others here, with which we have been harrassedharassed eternally about the no genius of the ultra-montanes for the fine arts.27 I first heard something of this doctrine in England. Experience has shewn me that it can only come from a baffled artist, who might intend it as an apology for his own bad success. And it is besides not an unserviceable notion to the business of an antiquarian, which is the last and general resource of these disappointed people. You are all mad in England after Magilphs,28 as several accounts confirm to us. I intend you an entire long letter, though I don't know whether you will have the patience to read it, upon these and other matters; as yet I cannot think of it, as I am rather busy amongst the antique figures and bustos29 all the day, and at nights paint after nature at the academy.30

The mention you make of any affairs of yours, whether in or out of place,31 is always sure to give me pleasure, and a feeling which I have not words to describe: conferring with me, as I may call it, about any thing that concerns any of you is to the last degree flattering to me, and in the most sensible part. As I am likely to have my full swing of study here, in which under God I place my summum bonum,32 no moments are happier than those which call the authors33 of this, and other advantages, to the mind of,

Your humble servant,

J.B. James Barry

My most sincere love and respects wait upon the whole family, and Mr.Macleane;34 my respects to Mr. Reynolds.35 I do not know how to avoid the mention of a particular which I dare say will not be disagreeable to him; his friend Mr. Paine36 has since he came here, executed a model of Venus and Adonis;37 the novelty, genius, and agreeable manner with which he has treated it, has got him no small degree of credit amongst us, and it is the general opinion, that he has brought with him more elegance of thinking than usually comes, and that he wants very little but what he is in a fair way of acquiring here with application and industry. Compliments to all friends.