Letter from JAMES BARRY to PRIVY COUNCIL, written 31 July 1798, at Adelphi, London.

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, ii. 611-15.

The Privy Council Committee on Coin, a committee of the House of Lords appointed by the King on 7 February 1798,1 had approached the Royal Academy for advice on improving the coinage in Britain.2 Barry was concerned about the way the Academy was going about this business; when he found his suggestions were not accepted at the meeting of 27 July he decided to write to the Privy Council Committee.

Despite Barry's strong criticism of the way the Academy handled this affair, the Lords later thanked the Academicians 'for the handsome manner in which they had met the wishes of their Lordships'.3

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My Lords,

Your lordships having lately, and very much to your honour, confided the public trust respecting the taste of the coinage to the Royal Academy,4 Mr. Barry, professor of painting to that Academy, thinks it his duty to communicate the inclosed information to your lordships, requesting you will be so good as to excuse the hurry with which it is drawn up, as Mr. Barry is working at the Adelphi against time, during the recess of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts;5 has consequently but very little leisure, and could not at present be induced to meddle with any other business, but from a sense of the duty he owes to the public service, on this very interesting occasion of a reformation of the coinage, to which he in common with the other academicians has been called by your Lordships' graceful and very exemplary invitation.

The information offered to your Lordships' attention is what follows:

" On the meeting of the Academy, July 17, a letter was read from the Lords of the Committee of the Council, requiring the Academy to select such a Committee of a few of its members, as might be best furnished with that peculiar information which would best enable their Lordships to improve and perfect the coinage of the country, as a becoming work of taste and art. The reading of this letter was prefaced and followed by some observations of the president,6 still further elucidating the views of their Lordships. Mr Barry then got up, and proposed, as the best method of getting all desirable necessary information on this head, that, previous to appointing a committee, all such academicians as chose to suggest any advice on this matter might be permitted to offer it, either viva voce , or by a written motion, at that or at the next meeting, which, as expedition was required, might be convened for the purpose next day, or the day after; and that the committee which we might then appoint, would, as well as their lordships, be in full possession of useful information, which might otherwise never reach them. This did not comport with the views of the majority, and accordingly Mr. Tyler7 moved, that a committee of four, with the president, be immediately appointed to confer with their lordships on this business. Mr. Barry objected to this; urging, that, as this committee might be appointed by a cabal,8 whose views were very different from what the subject and their lordships required, the very people who ought to be consulted, and whom their lordships would wish to consult, would by this means be kept out of view, and their opinions concealed with them. Mr. Tyler observed, that any thing they had to suggest might be communicated to the committee, who would be very thankful for it; and without further ceremony made his motion for the appointment of the committee, which was seconded by Mr. Catten,9 and carried immediately. It may not be improper to remark, that Mr. Catten is a coach-painter, and Mr. Tyler, bricklayer to the Board of Ordnance. Here, my lords, you may behold some small part of those combined evils which sooner or later, according to the ethics of the time, to effrontery and political cunning, operate with such fatal success upon all public institutions; at least, they have so operated upon all public academies, as not only to prevent great and effectual exertions and advancement, but to introduce, foster, and give currency to imbecility and wretchedness. This has been long a paradox which has puzzled Europe: public academies originally receive reputation and eclat from the few great men who unfortunately contributed to form and occasion their being instituted. But in a society of forty academicians,10 where the majority must be very different, and where, notwithstanding every thing goes by vote, so many opportunities and temptations offer for successful combination and cabal, as will completely level all characters; nay, much worse, it will be soon found that low artists will sway and govern in an academy, who could never have been known to the public, if that academy was not in existence. Shortly after the appointment of this committee, the cabal, as if afraid or ashamed of what they had done, consented that this committee should be empowered no further than to receive their lordships' ideas, and report them to the Academy. At the next meeting (last Friday) the president, after reporting the conference with their lordships,11 observed, that the committee being now dissolved, the Academy might proceed to appoint another, or re-appoint the same committee, or increase their number. As this passed without any observation, and a pause ensuing, Mr. Barry then got up and observed, that as the Academy was now in complete possession of their lordships' public-spirited, truly noble ideas, our respect for them would be best shewn, by such academicians as chose immediately offering their best advice on this head; and that, to this end, he had in his pocket a motion, which he intended reading at the last meeting, if opportunity had been permitted, which he would now, and accordingly did, read to them. Here it follows:

" As the most secure mode of providing against the injuries resulting from the usage, and consequently the most susceptible of admitting and indulging all the desiderata 12 respecting the perfection and most artist-like execution of gold and silver coins, I move "that the Academy recommend to the lords of the committee, that the valuable part of the workmanship of the coin be sunk beneath the surface, as it were in a coffer,13 like the roses in the Architectonic Soffitas, and like the objects in bas-relief on the Egyptian obelisks [img], as well as those bas-reliefs of the ancient Hindoos,14 which are all defended in the same wise exemplary manner. The reasons for treating coin in the same way are not only exactly similar, but infinitely stronger, and must be too obvious to need my repeating them. There are even some of the ancient Greek coins treated in the same way, though partially, and but imperfectly, although at present it does not occur to my recollection which of them, all this might comport very well with milling the edges, and raising the letters on the surface, (if that worse than useless custom is still adhered to) and they may pass by weight as the coin does at present.

" N. B. Such workmanship as Simon's Head of Charles II. Cromwell,15 the Strozzi,16 Medusa,17 or as may be found on many of the Papal and other coins, thus securely bedded in coffers, is all that can be desired on this head, for setting the most becoming, most glorious, national example that occurs in the history of coinage; an honour most justly merited by the modesty, public spirit, and true patriotism with which their lordships the committee of the council have referred this matter to the Academy.

James Barry."18

July 17, 1798.

" P. S. Once more I cannot help saying, that this idea, properly executed, would not only be original and unique in the story of coinage, would be the least exposed to injury from friction, would require no ingrailing, indented, or engraved lines or pits, which might furnish occasion for fraudulently charging the coin with any base metal; would allow of every artist-like perfection with respect to the designing part, whether any new device be adopted, or whether, which is rather to be hoped, we adhere to the old ones, venerable through long usage; and in either case, I would pledge my life or reputation with their lordships for the certainty, ease, and simplicity of its execution. The sulphur impressions of very many of the Greek Intaglios19 may afford some idea of what might be done on modern coins."

It may be as well now, my lords, to continue writing in my own person, and proceed to say, that as I well foresaw would happen, a great deal of unpleasant altercation followed the reading of my motion,20 and it was then thought proper to insist that the committee was not dissolved, but was still existing; and this, as every thing else moved by the cabal, was immediately confirmed by putting it to the vote, notwithstanding my appealing to the books, and even to the speech of the president at the beginning of the meeting; although after some further altercation, and Mr. Coply's21 observing that they ought at least to have appointed such a committee as would be most likely to be best acquainted with these particular matters, and in no need of consulting any other academicians, and some other remarks to the same effect, made such an impression, that it was at last agreed that the committee should be only a committee of communication between their lordships and the Academy, and this was set down accordingly in our books.22 Thus the matter is, according to my apprehension, in a state of some little confusion, and unfortunately liable to much misunderstanding on the part of their lordships. What they wisely required of the Academy was a committee of Periti ,23 and what we have given them is only a mere vehicle, a committee of communication between their lordships and the Academy, where the Periti still remain.

Your lordships seem to have been well aware that the particular assistance you required of the Academy could lie in the way of but a very few artists, and that men may be very excellent painters in many departments of the art, who never could have had any occasion to furnish themselves with information respecting the taste of coins, and other matters of antiquity, which many of them, ridiculously following the foolish part of the example of a great man (Rembrandt) despise and reprobate, as contemptible niceties, below the notice of the imitators of nature, which they would exclusively and short-sightedly arrogate to vulgarity and a mean choice. However, occasions sometimes occur, where the little politics and arts of life might make it necessary for them not to appear to want this knowledge, and perhaps oblige them to play the part of the dog in the manger,24 in withholding or marring the enjoyment of that particular credit they cannot obtain for themselves; and it might be possibly this motive that induced our cabal to adopt such a mode of meeting your lordships' wishes, as would best keep out of view those who, they thought, having already too much credit, it would be good policy to obscure. However, although I had resolved never to have any further contest with this cabal after my Letter to the Dilettanti Society25 should be published, where the conduct of the Academy, and its situation respecting those public trusts, was fully discussed and brought into public view, yet I could not withhold myself from once more embarking in these unfortunately boisterous contests, as the occasion would not admit of delay, and was so exceedingly interesting to the public. And although I then told them with some indignation, that I would give myself and them no more trouble in this business, and that I am still resolved never to give another vote in the Academy, until the academicians shall be bound by oath to lay aside all cabal, and to have nothing in view but the public service; yet I will very cheerfully devote my attendance to your lordships, and will meet whomsoever you choose to appoint, either at Mr. Wedgwood's, at the British Museum, or Mr. Tassie's,26 or at any other place, where we might run over some coins, medals, and intaglios, or rather the casts from them, and where I will undertake, without any other reward than the gratification of contributing importantly to the public service, to demonstrate the practicability of an improvement in the taste of the coinage, and in the provision against its consumption by the wearing, which though fully warranted in some particulars by them all, has notwithstanding never yet been unitedly effected, by Greeks, Romans, Italians, or any other.

I have the honour to be, with every recognition of respect for your lordship's exalted situation, and with the sincerest admiration of your exemplary, unprecedented conduct in it, my lords, your most devoted humble servant,

James Barry.

P. S. As the public trusts respecting matters of taste which are referred to the Royal Academy, are gradually becoming more important, and as I have, in my Letter to the Dilettanti Society, entered very fully into what is likely to produce satisfaction or annoyance in that business, I shall pray your lordships to accept a copy of it. You will find, from page 13 to page 22, some facts regarding these public trusts brought forward, which, as they are truly stated, and cannot be contradicted, ought most certainly to be remedied, and speedily: had they been false, I must acknowledge myself to merit every reprobation.

The above article, respecting our conduct in the matter referred to us by your lordships, will, perhaps, make another part, which will unite very well with the rest in a second edition of that letter.27

Great-Room of the Society of Arts, John-Street , Adelphi,
Tuesday July 31, 1798.