Letter from JAMES BARRY to EDMUND BURKE, written 30 September 1768, at Rome

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 118-23

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Rome, September, 30, 1768

Dear Sirs, 1

I am so much out of humour with myself for not answering sooner your very kind letter of July last, that I believe you will be easier satisfied with my old apology of application to study than I shall be myself. There is a particular in your letter I do not understand, you say, " I am glad of Hamilton's opinion, it cannot fail of being serviceable to you some way or other."2 What this alludes to I know not. Another particular in your letter also has altered the plan I laid down to myself, of making copies of my studies here; your house is full,3 and though there is likely to be many English travellers here this winter, I surely have not the least expectation of disposing of any thing, and have long since given up all thoughts of either friendship or profit in any person that I am likely to be shewn shown to here.

You will probably call to mind from a piece of vanity that dropt dropped from me in a former letter, that I do not think thus of my situation from any feebleness that I believe is discoverable in me on a comparison with others; but Mr. Hamilton, our envoy, excepted, every one else that I have seen, has been entangled in the wiles and mediums laid for them by one or other of two or three clear-sighted, knowing men, who are extremely well calculated for the prosecution of the business they have in hand.

I am heartily sensible of your goodness and friendship in so frequently enjoining me to be upon good terms with the people here; but I believe if you saw how agreeably we kill the time when we get together (which is not seldom) how we laugh, how we drink, how we sing, how we tell stories and talk nonsense, you would be satisfied there was enough in all conscience to answer the purposes of relaxation and social intercourse; some of us, to be sure, know this to be nothing more than outside and false fire, yet that does not hinder our making the best use of it; and though there be amongst us one or two discontented, recluse men, yet of the many English, Italian, and French that know me, there is not even one, but has often taken notice that I was farthest from that character of any Englishman at Rome.4 You are accustomed to have a partiality for me, and notwithstanding that I have not allowed myself to dilate and explain matters (which will be better reserved for our entertainment and conversation hereafter, of which I could fill volumes) yet I hope I have hinted just enough to keep my place still in your good opinion. My two copies after Raffael,5 together with many studies of things I liked at the little Farnese being finished some time, I have been ever since at work at the palais Borghese,6 and am far advanced in entire copies of two of the most capital Titians I ever saw; one is called the three graces, the other an adoration of the shepherds.7 Notwithstanding my enthusiasm for Raffael and Michael Angelo,8 (to whom I shall return when these copies are finished, for the short time of my stay here) I so far agree with the world as to think that Titian possesses as large a share of the art as any of them, and has conducted himself with as much, or even more strength of observation and judgement in this his inferior mechanical part. I have nothing now to say of him; his character is truly drawn by most writers—bad contour,9 limbs disproportioned, no expression or character in any thing above ordinary nature; but my ideas (I was going to say human ideas) of a beautiful, true, and sound colouring cannot possibly rise above the performances of Titian; whilst I cannot help affirming, that some great and industrious genius might, with allowing himself proper time and study so avail himself of the beauty, character, just symmetry, and elevated idea of the antique as to carry the excellencies of Raffael and Michael Angelo very much beyond the point of perfection they have fixed them at. But to return to Titian and colouring, if it was not taking too much upon myself, I would now venture to affirm, that all pretension to secrets and Magilphs10 is to be met with only amongst knaves and fools: the former for reasons sufficiently obvious, may find it their interest to circulate such a notion, whilst there will never be wanting of the latter, who not knowing what to do with the common materials, are ready enough to imagine the fault does not lie in them, and desperately run adrift in the search of a terra incognita.11 It is certain that there is some little cleanliness required in the choice, preparation, and management of colours; this allowed, Titian would paint just the same with my pallet as with his own. There is nothing in his pictures whiter, bluer, or yellower—but they may be made now as much and even more so, if the merit consisted in that. But the judicious application and mixing together of things is what puzzles in Titian, for he hardly ever laid on a colour simple, pure, and in its full force. Bassano, Rubens, Vandyke, and Paul Veronese, are all good colourists,12 though all different; with a little displacing of the favourite tints, less blue, less red, purple, or yellow, put on here, the other there, and you may change each of them into the other with respect to colouring, and you may transform any or all of them into Titian in the same manner. A few changes in the placing and force of the tints will convert an ill coloured French or Italian picture of Pierre, Boucher, or Battoni,13 into the colouring of Reynolds,14 of the Venetians, Flemings, and of nature.

Then in this just distribution, strengthening, or weakening of tints, consists visibly the whole art of colouring; the whole Venetian and Flemish schools worked upon the same principles as their founders, but with different degrees of verity in the application of them, and have continued in a sort of succession to this day: some colour animals well, some bread, fruit, and still life: others do well in the painting of carnations and the nude; and in short, every man of parts and genius amongst them succeeded more or less in representing whatever part of nature, long study and diligent observation gave him a thorough and sufficient knowledge of: so that we find the success in practice has been always in proportion to the diligence and truth of the painter in laying on and ranging the colours, half colours, weakenings, strengthenings, &c. in the same manner, and in the same individual places of his picture, that they are seen to occupy in his natural archetype. We ought therefore to have little hesitation about pronouncing that the whole arcana15 of fluids do not afford any one medium that will, in the hands of a man wanting in the fore-mentioned requisites, produce that propriety of colouring in all the different objects of nature, so variegated in itself, and so distinct in the one object from the other. So much your condemnation of Magilphs has encouraged me to say on the subject.

The greater number of our people here have been laid up with sickness of one kind or other, occasioned by the extraordinary heats of the last summer. They are all now, thank God, either up or out of danger, whilst without ailment or complaint, God Almighty has preserved me through one continued and uninterrupted course of labour, which has not allowed me the time to see Tivoli, Frascati, Albano,16 or even to go three miles out of Rome ever since my arrival, though I have been pressed to it very warmly by parties of Italian, French, and English, who were desirous of taking a little mirth and good humour along with them; for you cannot think what a pleasant fellow I am ever since my coming abroad, as I have been under no apprehensions either of getting into debt or of wanting my dinner.

You may see by this, which is really the truth, how little reason there was for your dreading my becoming recluse and unsociable. I did not even know myself that I was master of so much ease and tranquillity of mind, or had such a fund of natural gaiety, until I was put to the trial. But all that they could do and may do, I can assure you, never gave me any other real uneasiness than that as they put it out of my power to contribute in any wise to the defraying of my expenses here, (by the sale of any thing I have done or might do) I found myself under the necessity of being burdensome to you for it. 17

Two nights ago, while we were chatting together at our coffee-house,18 I happened, out of mere wantonness of talking, to say, that you and Mr. William 19 were to be here this winter. The confusion I observed in some people upon it, occasioned my immediately improving the hint, and joining two others to it; 20 four of you all coming out to see Italy together. They were very much embarrassed about it, as they foresaw it would in great measure put it out of their power to act agreeably to their intentions this winter, which is, they know, the last I am to stay here.21 If this trick of mine does me no good, I believe it will do me no harm. God bless you, sirs, my best respects wait on you, Mrs. Burke, 22 and the whole family.

My worthy and dear friend Dr. Nugent made me very happy by his kind letter; he will, I hope, do me the justice to believe that it is neither through want of love or respect that he has not my acknowledgement in a sheet of paper directed particularly to him—the same, I hope of Mr. William, and Mr. Richard. I am fatigued, and am besides arrived at the end of my paper, but what need of my foolish apology, when the dear sirs at the top of my letter cannot be explained otherwise than by their being understood in it.