Letter from JAMES BARRY to EDMUND BURKE, written 23 May 1767, at Rome

Source: Fitzwilliam MS, Wentworth Woodhouse Manuscripts, Sheffield City Council, Libraries, Archives and Information. Printed: Correspondence of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, eds. Charles William Earl Fitzwilliam, and Sir Richard Bourke, 4 vols. (London, 1844), i. 116-29; Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 67-75.

Fryer heads the letter ‘Rome, no date’; any other substantial differences between his version and the MS are recorded in the footnotes.

Barry had now settled down to work in Rome and started to familiarise himself with the milieu of artists and people in the art trade. Ever mindful of the interest taken by the Burkes in his studies, he soon realises his opinions are not popular in Rome and is anxious that his frank expression of them in this letter be kept secret. Barry was writing when he received news that Richard Burke Snr. had broken his leg (Burke to Barry, 26 April 1767).

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Rome, May 23 1767

don't read this Letter to any strangers
Dear Sirs1

Since I wrote last2 I received a letter from both of you & have amongst other things no small pleasure to find what you advise with respect to study so perfectly agreeable to the process of the antients ancients , those who executed the Laocoon & the Torso of the Belvedere3 must have attended very minutely indeed to that close anatomical investigation you recommend to me. The deep knowledge of the antients ancients in anatomy is I think as observable in the apollo,4 Antinous5 & the delicate characters, as it is in such whose flesh are of a more rigid & membranous texture, & the dissappearing disappearing of the muscles as the figure approaches to the delicate is the Consequence of as certain principles& obsservations observations as their introduction would be in a figure of a different character. Many people have pointed out the absurdity of those who indiscriminately notch & score out all kind of characters into a mere myological6 map, falsly falsely taking myology which should be but a part in the painter's study of Anatomy; for the whole of it. A myological figurefigure is a character […] [gap in transcription (illegible), words: 1]in naturein nature wch7 ought to be known & studied to the bottom, the Laocoon & fighting Gladiator8 are of this character even independent of the muscular exertion & expression: but the Apollo & that walk of Character is necessary to be known also, where of the very few muscles that remain nothing is visible except the origins & insertions just hinted whilst the bellies of the muscles united with the fat &c take some large round & flowing appearanceformform.

The knowledge, freedom & greatness of style in drawing is I think the only part of the character of Mic Angelo Michelangelo 9 which has been well understood, it has been & is every day observed that notwithstanding the number of the figures in his last Judgment10 there is but one character of Body placed in a vast diversity of attitudes, the model of which is said to have been his porter. to11 speak my private opinion tis not so litterally literally the case as tis imagined, 'tho although I believe Mic. Angelo Michelangelo might have intended it in conformity to a prevailing opinion, that at the Ressurection Resurrection all bodies will be of the same age & character. There are several plump & youthfull youthful figures in the ceiling of the same Chappel Chapel & his Bacchus his dead Christ12 & other things ought to make it very clear how successfully he could avoid a monotony of character when it was his intention to avoid it:

I don't think the expressions of countenance either in him or in Rafael13 indicate in a very clear & particular manner the intentions & particular state of mind of the person to whom this countenance is given, they would (generally speaking) do as well for other figures of intentions very different. This has appeared to me on seeing the Heliodorus14 & the Transfiguration, & perhaps in the head of the father of the Posses'd Possessed Boy in the Transfiguration15 & in other heads Domenichino16 or Le Brun17 would have made it an expression more peculiar to the situation of the person, more correspoing corresponding with the words which may be naturally supposed to come from the figure on this occasion. You will now certainly stop me & observe that the Cartoons in England18 flatly contradict what I say, I confess it, & will also confess I think that besides these Cartoons being almost the first sober examples of the way of treating an interesting history they are (even in the prints wch which are only what I have seen) without contradiction beyond every thing here, in a Just, proper & interesting combination of expressions all centring upon some one, simple, obvious particular. I have not the least scruple about pronouncing the Cartoons the best & most Judicious of his works, 'tho the Elegance which Raphael possesses above all the moderns does not come into these designs and the Expressions are strong & passionate & the characters are mostly of that nature where it was Judicious in him to have omitted it.

I was some time agoe 19 at a Conversation20 here where were some Artists & English & other Gentlemen, amongst other talk Minx's copy21 after Rafael ( wch which is at Northumberland house) came on the Tapis22 & it was observed by one present (who from the nature of his business & situation is courted exceedingly by such artists as desire to make either money or friends here as he & one or two more of the same interest & opinion are the only channells thro wch channels through which the acquayntance acquaintance of acquayntance acquaintance of English Gentlemen come) it was observed by him as I said Minx's copy was not well relish'd at first by the people at home, which was not to be wonder'd at as it required some time to form the Taste of a Nation & that he was sorry that Minx was not in England to teach &c I begged of him to excuse me If I took the Liberty to observe that it looked a little oddly to expect the introduction of Good Taste from a copy after Rafael by Minx, whereasifif the Cartoons the best work of Rafael […] [gap in transcription (illegible), words: 2] wch which were wch which were in England ever since the time of Charles 1st.23 […] [gap in transcription (), words: 3]were not able to effect it. As he is a man of great civility I never would have thought of observing this or any thing else in contradiction to what he said if I had not seen clearly into the drift & tendency of his frequent hints of the incapacity of the people at home, & that a nod from him would set his dependents to tear up & trample upon every thing we held sacred, Reynolds24 could not draw, his coloring was white, was blue, was […] [gap in transcription (illegible), words: 1] red, was every thing that could damn him, he stole what he had & he mangled what he stole. Barrett25 was nothing, could be nothing, the mushroom of a day whose pictures whenever people came to have any taste would be hung up at Rag fair,26 in short Gainsborough's Landscapes were nosegays,27 & west28 who according to their Letters was so much the fashion afforded a convincing proof that drawing was not sought after & that a true Idea of Art was wanting as nothing would goe go down but magilps29 & mysteries.

You may Judge how agreeable to me was this treatment of Reynolds, Barrett, Gainsborough, Stewart30 […] [gap in transcription (), words: 1] the Exhibition & all the artists; in the begining beginning I took it but for the effects of envy, jealousy & what not, which sometimes infect the minds of Artists, & though it ought not to break any sociable ties between us, but I had no sooner attempted to excuse our people at home from the Aspersions thrown upon them & from the prepossessions which our Travellers here were likely to get against them but I was immediately pointed out as a person who not coinciding with the designs of the dealors dealers might be dangerous in the company of English Cavaliers31 where it was necessary every now & then to run out into the praises of an indifferent antique head with a modern body & leggs cobb'ld legs cobbled to it, or of an old picture wch which they Christened in the name of this or that master & which has seldom other merit than that as nothing is visible in it so nothing can be objected to. One remark Ill32 make & tis grounded upon an infinite number of pictures which I have seen in the course of my rambles, 'tis that Time spoils pictures as well as other things & that a Century or two makes great confusions amongst the colours mixt on a wall or Canvas, some decay sooner, others later, some grow dark others light & some change to one colour some to another & all taking different routs33 in their Changes the harmonical ties & relations between them is nearly lost except to a man much practic'dpractised in the mechanic & using of Colours who perhaps may be able to guess from the way the Colouring appears in now how it might have appeared formerly. Learn'd invention, design where Taste & correctness reign are things you know not liable to change, this accounts why Raphael is gaining ground in the world tho Titian34 may be losing it, & a philosopher who is also deeply conversant in the Elegant Arts may be & is certainly the best Judge of the Antique & Rafael, 'tho he is very liable to be deceived in the colouring of a picture which is chang'd from its original perfection & was never perhaps remarkable for anything but the coloring. Here then is a great opportunity for Cozening & imposition as perfection is not the criterion & things may be not very unlike in their decays that were exceedingly so 150 years agoe ago when some persons of as little merit as Character made copies & imitations of Titian & other good Colorists.

It requires no proof that there are great numbers of Antient Statues & Basso Relievo's35 little worthy of notice for any skill in the workmanship & […] [gap in transcription (illegible), words: 1] designing they have been only preserv'd because of some custom that they may serve to explain some manner of dress or some opinion of the antients ancients wch which they may elucidate: this may be when they arethey are entire or in great part so, but there are leggs legs & thighs & feet & heads brought out of old houses, gardens & other places where they have mostly layn lain unheeded ever since the 15 Century when they were thrown away as soon as they were found being wanting in every thing that could entitle them to a place in a repository. As the English have much money to lay out in Vertue36 & have perhaps a greater passion for the antients ancients than they have (generally speaking) judgment to distinguish amongst them. Those into whose hands they fall here & to whom their commissions are sent take care to provide heads with bodies & legs & vice versa, fragments of Gods & Senators are jumbled into the same figure ofof furies & Graces, 'till it comes out a monster like that which rose from the hide the three deities pissed into.37 There are instances to be sure of some one or two good things going over, but the multitude of those that are exceeding bad, […] [gap in transcription (), words: 1] (much below the work of any tolerable french or other modern artist) make us the amazement & ridicule of all indifferent people. Tis pity to see our Gentlemen who come out of England with the best intentions, & with a national spirit so dup'd & made even instruments of dissension twixt the Artists here. The Antiquary & dealer are each provided with his set of puffers,38 & in return whatever Gentleman falls into his hands is taught to believe that next to the old pictures & statues which they deal in these are the only people here or at home & a Job of somesome trifling matter is suffer'd to fall now & then in their way. The rest if they are heard of tis to their disadvantage but care is taken that they shall be never seen.

Every one knows the necessity there is of a long succession of practice amongst any people desirous of meriting a Character in the Arts, & 'tis as visible that if in the time of Pericles39 all places in Greece were crouded crowded with the works of other nations, it would be a secret to the world whether or not the Greeks had any genius for Arts. This I take it was the true reason why the Romans never succeeded & why perhaps we may come short of the lenghts lengths we otherwise probably would goe go . There is one thing may hold up an appearance of Art in England for 50 or 60 years longer, if the Legislature was to consider that the vast number of pictures &c we have of the Italians, French & Flemings, prove very sufficiently what they could do in Art it may be now time before every crevice is fill'd that theTryals40 of our own people should be countenanc'd, which cannot be the case if importation of Art goes on much farther.

I have wearied you & myself, but you will excuse it as these things seemed to me to affect the very vitals of Art: I would further add that tho for the most part intrigue & mercenary ways may be prevalent here asas the truth is never without a witness 41 […] [gap in transcription (), words: 1] there are a few who follow Art for its own sake, these are as easily distinguish'd by their Abilities as the others may be by their want of them. I am almost afraid even to send what I have wrote as I always dread the resentment of base spirited people incapable as I know of an open Generous revenge. There are two sorts of people they are desirous of gaining over, such who are likely to be known to or recomended recommended to the Gentlemen who come hither, & others whose understanding & conversation may be usefully employed to their purposes & from the compliments paid me in the begining beginning it should appear they judg'd me in some measure proper for them, a very little time shew'd42 the contrary […] [gap in transcription (), words: 1] forfor on speaking civilly of the works of Reynolds Barrett, Hamilton43 here & Nevi44 twas whispered that I spoke too much for a young man & resolved from that time that I should have for the future but few opportunities of speaking in the company of English Cavaliers to whom it was necessary to convey opinions of another tendency. as we know each other we are very quiet & as sociable as I can when we meet together which is the course I shall take whilst I stay here. You will I believe think it prudent to keep this letter to yourself as should it be known that I laid such matters open these people would soon be advised of it & perhaps asassination assassination may be the consequence of it.

I have just this Instant received a letter from you45 & am happy to find that there are no dangerous circumstances attending that unlooky46 accident. I hope the Leg is well by this time & has lost nothing of its form wch which was a good one; thank God for it no one is better stock'd with good humour, spirits & good company to support his confinement than our friend Mr Richard:47 off all things48 I would not wish him to stand upon his Leg to soon49as the but tis ridiculous in me to advise about it & tho Dr Nugent50 will laugh & you will all laugh, you will all forgive me too.

Twoud It would be idle to say I rejoice at the strengtht strength of opposition or at Mr William's success51 since whatever engages any of the family my heart is surely engaged in it too.

I am sorry for the death of Mr Sisson52 twas my intention on my return home, to cultivate his friendship as well as the friendship of all people that were agreeable to you. You will I hope be so kind as to continue your advice at least as often as you find Leisure for it & as it may be agreeable to you. You won't find it easy to make me believe that there is in it as you say more freedom and copiousness than Judgment:53 you ought surely to be free with a man of your own making & who has found in you Brother, father, friend every thing, & you cannot be too copious since before I had the happiness of seeing or knowing you the principles of a certain work54 appeared to me (like what is related of the discourses of the Athenian Philosopher with the Artists of his time) to lead to & point out what must give the last hand to Art. 55

As I mentioned in my former 56 I have been since I came here employed in seeing the different things & studying the Antique & nature: as it is now necessary to keep much at home the hot weather being come in I have begun a picture wch which I intend for the Exhibition, the Subject is Eve tempting Adam; 57 it is also painted in the Lodge of Raphael, 58 but does not please me as I think it designed in a manner that neither explains the Story nor interests the Spectator Mr Reynolds can shew you a print of it. I know you would think my time better spent in copying & studying the Antique Mic Angelo & Rafael, I think so too, but the doing of some one thing of this kind appeared necessary especially at this time & there will be some useful study in two figures which ought to be of Absolute beauty as I conceive it, by the time the heats are over twill be near done & I shall get out to copy.

On my Arrival I was obliged to draw about 5 pounds to make up the hire of the chaise, 59 & the buying a bed & other necessarys will make the expense of the year about ten or twelve pounds more than the credit of 40 60 wch which I had, I apprehended this some time agoe ago & asked the Clerk whether if I wanted any more he would give it me which he agreed to I went to him the day before yesterday to get 10 pounds at which he boggled & said the credit was out & that a fresh letter was necessary but that to oblige me & so forth he would let me have it, I was told that nothing was done without a fee here which I well knew before & that to avoid his embarrassing & giving me trouble twas necessary to give him half a guinea a year. There is nothing to be seen here without giving about 18 pence of our money & as there are few who care to goe go to see except they goe go with Cavaliers when it costs them nothing, so it has been a little expensive to me. There is no working at the Capella Systina, the Vatican the Capitol or any pallace61 without giving at least 5 paols 62 wch which is half a Crown weekly. The 10 pounds which make 50 I have received here will bring up this year very well & I shall be very well able to do with 40 pounds a year after for the three years I intend staying here.

Talking of money & expences63 which I am sorry are so considerable, has I confess soured me not a little so that I cannot write any more if I would, & shall close ye Letter with presenting my best respects to all the family, to Mr Macleane 64 to Mr Reynolds Mr Barrett & all friends & remain […] [gap in transcription (space), words: 1]Dear Sirs

Your Oblig'd HumbHumble Servant

James Barry

Hamilton has near finish'd a picture of the death of Lucrece, 65 tis in every respect his most capital work, when he is once known he appears (at least he did so to me) as amiable in his manners as he is unquestionably very considerable for his Talents in history.66 There is another in the history way here Nevi whose Character I shall give you more at large hereafter justjust telling you by the way that twill not be to his disadvantage either as a man or an Artist.