Letter from JAMES BARRY to SOCIETY OF ARTS, written 1 October 1798, at Castle Street, London

Source: MS James Barry, Papers and Letters, The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Barry had been granted permission by the Society of Arts to work on his six pictures The Progress of Human Culture in the Great Room of the Society in the Adelphi during the summer months of 1798.

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My Lords & Gentlemen

I have to thank you, which I do very sincerely, for your kind indulgence in permitting me, during your last recess,1 to retouch my work on Human Culture which is in your Great Room: my heart had been long set upon making a few amendments in certain parts of that work: those amendments are made & in that respect I am now gratified to the utmost of my wishes. However as our satisfaction is never to be compleat2 (at least here) a blemish has (partly from ye the suggestion of others) lately occurred to me, wch which from the numerous attentions necessarily required in so much matter of subject had unhappily escaped my observation before, & which as it is not too late to remedy & as an essential part of what is necessarily to be done must lie with your Society, I am ready most chearfully3 to do what depends upon onon me whenever it is your pleasure to desire it. The unlooky unlucky blemish is, that in the fifth picture of the Series,4 where the Society are occupied in the distribution of Premiums & where so much occurs of what is great & respectable as to Rank & Talents; there is nothing to specify the City of London except ye the view of S.t Pauls in the distance. Had I introduced ye the Lord Mayor of that City,5 wch which has always been so remarkably distinguished for its numerous Hospitals, Schools & for whatever could best denote the most truly Citizen like & generous publicity, I had then done it a justice wch which would be in strict unison with ye the other parts of ye the work & have left my mind without a wish at present. This may still easily be done if it is your pleasure & without disturbing ye the arrangement of ye the Seats oror & ye the Sessions of ye the Society,6 as there will be no inconvenience from ye the Scaffold wch which has space enough in that part of ye the Room, where it might remain for a few days, for ye the purpose of transferring a portrait or two into that picture.

As without putting out anything, there is in that picture good space for ye the introduction of two portraits, I should feel happy in receiving ye the Societies Society's commands for filling that space with the Portrait of a Lord-Mayor of London & also of the truly Noble Personage both as to Rank & Talents, who is at ye the head of their Presidency7 & I am not a little gratified in this opportunity of saying so, as amongst ye the number of scoundrel attacks that have been made upon my reputation & interest one of the latest has been a lying story of that His Grace ye the Duke of Norfolk had done me ye the honour to desire his portrait at my hand & that with ye the most underbred brutality I insolently shut ye the door on his Grace, bidding him to look out for somebody else. This is the third Noble Duke with whom I have been embroiled since ye the exposition of your work, I have been embriled embroiled by ye the political artifices of this Scoundrel Combination, (who are daily growing more desperate, as appears by ye the late breaking open & robbery of my house).8 The broad, general satire of denoting one species of Ambition, by ye the Star & Garter in Tartarus, was by artful whispers fastned fastened on his Grace ye the late Duke of Northumberland9 & as if that was not sufficient to mar ye the subscription during ye the course of ye the two exhibitions10 (where they knew I never came) another rascally lye, was also, at ye the same time industriously circulated, respecting my insolence to the Duke of Rutland11 on his offering to subscribe these attacks may be glorious as ye the seal of merit, but stillthese attacks may be glorious as ye the seal of merit, but still 'Tis hard, very hard, that ye the reputation & consequently ye the interest of a man who has no other dependence – but complaining is useless, Combination, envy, malignity & hireling assassins, may execute their work with impunity in certain defenceless cases, where neither time nor money can be spared in search of a remedy, to me ye the Law is useless, -- if my work had obtained for me but half as many active freinds friends , as it has active enemies & that ye the emoluments12 bore any proportion to ye the envy rankling & bitterness it has occasioned, it would perhaps reflect more credit upon ye the times I lived in: but whether or not let us goe go on chearfully as we have honourably.

With respect to what has been recently done to ye the work, all is remaining of the matter that was there before, I have put out nothing & have only invigorated & embellished where it appeared necessary. I have indeed in ye the last picture, ye the State of final Retribution introduced something new wch which gives a further extension & a more weighty impression to ye the old matter. Behind the Superior Intelligence who is discoursing upon ye the Solar System to ye the admiring Newton, Gallileo, Copernicus & Bacon,13 I have introduced two similar Intelligences which necessarily intimates a Mass of Superior Intellect in that part. Also over ye the Centre group, ye the general arrangement is assisted by another angel strewing flowers. And by introducing three more angelic Characters amongst ye the Guards, in ye the advanced part of ye the Elysium14 I have answered ye double purpose of adding by those large ideal figures, something more to ye the dignity of that part, where so many portraits of mere individuals occurred, & without introducing any thing new into Tartarus, the Action & way in wch which those Guards are employed, necessarily leads ye the Attention into that part & consequently furnishes another link for uniting those two states of Final Retribution wch which form ye the subject of ye the Picture.

Happening within these three years to meet some of those truly noble works translated from ye the present race of ye the literary heroes of Germany,15 a most extraordinary, admirable Character of ye the true old Grecian leaven, has fortunately come to my knowledge & after a long & fruitless search for a portrait of him, by ye the luckiest accident imaginable, only a fortnight since, just as I had terminated what I was about in ye the Great Room, a very fine Medal was brought to me by wch which I have been enabled to enrich my Elyzium16 with another portrait wch which would have ranged admirably near ye the eye in that group with Plato, behind Sir Tho.s Thomas More,17 had it not been that ye the vacant space was there necessary for ye the composition as a Totality of easy & agreableagreeable comprehension to ye the sight; however Moses Mendelssohn18 the illustrious character I allude to was blessed with such various & graceful talents, that it was easy to find in such a Society, a station & Company which he would relish & where he might give as well as receive lustre: I have therefore placed him (near Thompson, Dryden & Pope) shaking hands with Addison.19 Tis curious tho though melancholly20 to reflect that such a Character as Moses Mendelssohn, with all his virtues, could not have become entitled to ye the Citizenship of London, even tho though he were born in it without (which he probably would not do) having previously attempted, aided or abetted ye the spilling of human blood by firing at some enemy. However I may safely rely on God & good men for my justification in spurning all such brutal conditions for his admission to that Elysium where he makes so graceful an ornament. Constraint, Encouragement, Principle, altho although these words may pass without any meaning & - but reasoning is out of its place & thrown away upon such matter, surely, surely, one cannot help cursing that baneful destructive hypocricy hypocrisy wch which by artfully contrived oppressions, prevents any part of ye the human race from emerging into Science & Virtue & then diabolically attempts to justify its conduct by ye the very barbarism those oppressions naturally occasion. Let God Almighty deal with them & us, with Jews & Christians, according to his own wise & beneficent tho though inscrutable designs, this can furnish no reason for our wicked & impious interference in officiously tormenting each other to ye the utter subversion of all those charities that grace our common nature.

But to get to something less agitating, Amongst those Personages who have been dignified with ye the title of Patrons of ye the Arts & just behind Francis ye the 1st & Lord Arundel,21 I have introduced a baldheaded Friar holding in his a large schrool scroll of parchment which by ye the writing on it appears to be ye the plan of ye the illustrious Cassiodorus for his Convent at Viviers in Callabria.22 This graceful really Patrician Vestige of ye the ancient Nobility of Rome, had, under Theodoric23 & ye the other Gothic Princes, employed ye most unremitting industry & wisdom in directing that power with wch which he was entrusted by those ferocious Strangers in ye the manner best calculated to mollify & give some alleviation to ye the deplorable miseries of his time & when from ye the horrible dissorder disorder & confusions of conflicting hordes of those barbarians, it was no longer in his power to be useful to ye the existing generation, he piously retired to this Convent wch which he had formed & furnished with whatever could be obtained of ancient wisdom & literature: to digest, to teach or at worst to copy, multiply & preserve it for more happy times when it might again germinate. From these store houses as from another Ark, the world has again been replenished with Sciences & Arts, & as to our own Arts of Painting & Sculpture, we may truly & confidently say that, Europe would at this day be blind & dead to all feeling for ye the perfections of Ancient, even of Grecian Art, were it not for ye the long course of Education in those Arts wch ye which the piety of those Convents afforded during ye the whole carriere24 from Cimabue to Rafaelle & ye the Carrachi.25 This reasoning will equally hold true of ye the Greeks themselves. That perfection they had superinduced upon mere human nature arose from a higher principle than ye the listless, cold blooded Apathy of Materialism, wch which can love nothing, because it leaves nothing worth loving, & fairly left to itself, exerts but to destroy.

I have also had some satisfaction in introducing near Rubens & Vandyk, our own Sir Joshua Reynolds,26 & agreableagreeable to ye the sentiment expressed in his last discourse27 I have made him directing ye the attention of the spectator to M. Angelo whom he so much admired. This great City of London would have enjoyed more advantage from Sir Joshua’s fine talents, had there been remaining in it some of those exploded, old & happily fashioned Convents where those fine talents might have taken wing. Alass Alas , how much it is to be wished that, our Neighbours on ye the Continent might think seriously & deeply about this matter whilst it is yet time. Epicurism28 will be, as it always has been, barren with respect to excellence. These our Neighbours have been long distinguished for their love of ye the Art & they will never be able to find any generous principle of sufficient general interest to call out, to concentrate & give efficacious existence to ye the abilities of their Artists but by ye the preservation of Religion & wisely seperating29 whatever it affords of admirable, amiable, & consoling, from those illiberal, mean, mischievous perversions by which, from its occasional, accidental mixture with wretched political artifices & mere mundane concerns it has been often so much defiled. Let no one talk of ye the labour & continual exercion exertion wch which such undertakings require; for it is one of ye the unavoidable conditions of human existence, that it can enjoy no blessing & can have nothing perfect either as to production or conservation but in proportion to its own generous, unwearied exercions exertions .

--- Hélas30, --- whither am I hurrying, no doubt the prospect for Art is gloomy enough, all over Europe, but let me not exceed all bounds of indulgence by dwelling too long upon it, let us rather turn our attention to whatever there may be of a consoling nature; & I thank God for it, something wch which (as far as it goes) affords a most unalloyed satisfaction, has taken place since ye the writing of that Letter to the Dillettanti Society31 wch which I had ye the honor of sending you, before ye the close of your last Sessions. The main object of that Letter is I find compleatly obtained, or at least in a happy train of being so; for I have been well assured that three of our high spirited Noblemen have given 43500£ for ye the Italian part of ye the Orleans Collection.32 This might have been well expected from His Grace ye the Duke of Bridgwater33 & will associate well with ye the other generous acts of genuine Citizenship in which he has obliged ye the Publick. Sir Joshua Reynolds’s predilection & freindship friendship for ye the Earl of Carlile34 is well accounted for by ye the part his Lordship has had in this transaction & everything fully considered perhaps Lord Gwidar35 could not have begun his Carriere of Publick life by any Act more replete with general, substantial advantage. Your Society for the encouragement of Arts &c. is, with its other commendable attentions, in ye the habit of giving a Medal for ye the rearing up a certain number of oak & other Trees,36 but I believe that Medal is only voted to a single proprietor, otherwise, these exemplary Noblemen have really done something wch which , if rightly used, is likely to give growth to Trees of another, a higher & an Intellectual species in wch ye which the Country may have just rason reason to pride itself. I have heared heard that this admirable Collection is shortly to be exhibited to Publick view37 in order to defray ye the expence38 of ye the frames. & frames & as these pictures were my old Masters five & twenty years since,39 at wch which time I had been for many months copying & studying in ye the Palais Royal I shall have no small pleasure in renovating my accquaintance acquaintance & trying & comparing them with my present opinions of Art & those opinions with them, in some of my Lectures40 to ye the students of ye the Royal Academy & I hope this may take place soon eveneven if it was only on their account. But not to wander from ye the concerns of your Great Room, or rather (as your views extend to everything of high publick Concern) not to wander from my work in your Great Room, I shall close this Letter with observing that perhaps those pictures in your Great Room may in some few places seem to want a varnish to unite & bring ye the parts more out, but on second thoughts, it may perhaps appear otherwise, it may be that ye the Publick eye is a good deal corrupted by ye the glitter of Coach pannels41 & Birmingham Tea boards:42 this glitter would be horridly meretricious & out of its place in large works of a serious & generously unostentatious nature & besides ye the Pictures are yet fresh, & if any little matter of varnishing may be thought of use in certain parts, it will be better some time hence & then it may be done from a ladder or steps without any removal of or annoyance to the furniture of the Room.

I have the honour to be with the most affectionate esteem & Respect my Lords & Gentlemen Your most Obed.t Obedient humble serv.t servant .

James Barry

N. 36. Castle s.t Oxford Market
Octob.r October 1. 1798 -