Letter from JAMES BARRY to DR. WILLIAM O'BRIEN, written 26 February 1768, at Rome

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 146-49.

Dr. William O’Brien was the brother of Charles O’Brien who had been among Barry’s childhood friends in Cork (Peter Murray, James Barry, Historical Painter, p.20); he is probably the William O'Brien mentioned in Loach to Barry, [October] 1765. It seems from the opening that Barry was expecting O'Brien to visit him in Rome.

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Rome, 26 February, 1768.

My Dear Will,

I waited ever since the receipt of your letter to no purpose, in expectation of being able to send you this by hand.

It was unlucky our not meeting in Paris, but you had not advised me of the time I should expect to see you there. My stay in Rome will be for two years and a half longer, and then I shall set out, God willing, for Florence and Venice, where I shall stay half a year, or so,—then on through Flanders to England, where I hope to be at farthest in about four years hence. The vast collections here of statues by the old Greeks and Romans, and pictures of the Italians in Julius II. and Leo X.'s times,1 are the masters I attach myself to. The art being almost dwindled away to nothing amongst the present race of Italians, of whom, without fear of saying too much, it may be affirmed safer and better to avoid, than to imitate.

Arts follow in the train of Minerva,2 or, to be less figurative, arts generally, if not always, accompany knowledge and power, and are surely not to be found existing amongst the people who have little either of the one or the other. This is one reason why we should be the less surprised to see the descendants of naked Picts, and savage islanders,3 rising in the arts of elegance and refinement in nearly the same proportion that Greece, and other nations, have been sinking and falling from them,—but enough of this, or I shall run into a history of the ancients and moderns, and the migration of the sciences, and what not, which however would be less criminal than beginning again to advise, and as I now do, to recommend a certain course of reading to you.

I know of nothing, my dear Will, that can excuse these liberties that I take so frequently, if you do not ascribe it to a friendship evidently warm and sincere, though perhaps very little to the purpose. Agreeably to the practice of most men of study you probably have a bye course4 of reading, which you prosecute in your moments of leisure and retirement from your profession and main object.—Now, considering how much the acquisition of taste and elegance of thinking in all the fashionable arts, is thought to depend on our knowledge of the ancients, and particularly the Greeks, I would recommend to you the reading often, if not translations of a few of the principal Greek writers, at least, compilations from them, such as the ancient history of Rollin, &c.5 and you may easily run through Plato, Zenophon, Pindar,6 and the few others. French translations may be had in abundance, as well as English; if you can resist this temptation, you may very well content yourself with Rollin. It is a very agreeable piece of entertainment to trace step after step, the different periods of improvement in knowledge and arts;7 and though this makes but an under part, and is generally overlooked as such, yet — but I will here check myself again, as I cannot conceive how the devil I come to turn adviser and director, especially to one who is in so little need of it as you are. Perhaps it is because I have so little to inform you of concerning myself; two or three words being sufficient for that, viz. that I am incessantly studying old statues, heads, and legs, &c. &c. Besides, I can say nothing of the place or its curiosities that would not appear worn out to you; who must have read every thing that can be said upon these matters in the books of travels and descriptions. The conveniencies to be had here in matters of study, make my time pass away very agreeably. It is perhaps the greatest satisfaction most of us enjoy here. We are in number about thirty students, English, Scotch, and Irish8; and as there is in our art every thing to set the passions of men afloat, all desiring consequence and superiority; it is no wonder if distrust, concealed hatred, and ungenerous attempts, are perhaps oftener experienced, than friendship, dignity of mind, or open square9 conduct.

If you have heard any thing lately from Cork, insert it in your next, as it is now a year good10 since I received any letter from that place. I am almost tempted to think there is something the matter in my family, which may be the occasion of this silence. Mr. Brabant, the Dane,11 has last week set out for Naples; as I am uncertain whether you will receive this, I have no inclination to spin it out to any greater length.

You should have mentioned how long you intended staying in Thoulouse Toulouse , whether you purposed fixing there, or returning to Paris; to no one of such questions could I receive the least satisfying answer in your letter,12 as you only speak of taking a trip to ThoulouseToulouse next month. This is all you say on that article. I am obliged to you for the mention you make of your brother's success— you do me but justice to think I am interested in whatever concerns you. Your next will, I hope, bring better news of your health. Thank God, I can complain of nothing.—My health, vigour, and spirits, suffer no alloy, and my pension13 is just sufficient to make the two ends meet together. Direct your letter to Monsieur Wm. Barry,14 gentilhomme, Anglois, à au Caffe Anglois à Rome. 15 Never mind postage,16 let me have a letter from you directly, and fill it with what you please, so you fill it.