Letter from JAMES BARRY to SOCIETY OF ARTS, written 6 May 1801, at Castle Street, London

Source: MS RSA AD/MA/104/10/403, Royal Society of Arts, London.

Two portraits hung in the Great Room of the Society of Arts of two of its founders, the one of Robert Marsham (1712-93), Lord Romney, by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), the other of Jacob Bouverie (1694-1761), Lord Radnor and 1st Viscount Folkstone, its first President, by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88). Barry had proposed that the portraits be moved to somewhere else than the Great Room so that he could use the space for new designs, in particular a work celebrating the Act of Union (1801) between Great Britain and Ireland.

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My Lords & Gentlemen

It gave me great satisfaction on last wednesday to find by the almost unanimous vote of the Society for the removal of the two portraits 1 from the spaces over the Chimnies, that I was not mistaken in the high opinion I had conceived of their rectitude, good sense and Patriotism, which could so well distinguish between appearances & realities, between the Arguments of mere barren fruitless appearance of respect & veneration which were offered for continuing those portraits in their present situation; and those arguments of a contrary character, which grounded upon utility & realities were adduced for the prudent removal of those portraits to some other situation, where, more consistent with the idea of the progression & continuance of the Society, they would be no longer individual &individual & insulated, but on the contrary, where, their virtuous & amiable example of the personages represented in those portraits would stimulate & fructify, standing as they would then do at the head of a long list of those illustrious personages, their successors who were to follow them in thier their office and in their worthy example.

But as this matter has been opposed at its outset by the President His Grace the Duke of Norfolk,2 & at its termination, by two of the Vice Presidents, altho although this opposition seem'd to have made no impression on the Society & had no other effect at either time than the concern of differing in opinion with those worthy personages whom the Society esteemed so much, & as I have been since informed that several of the Nobility are also disinclined to the removal of those portraits, & that by some strange fatality, or mysterious procedure (for which 'tis difficult to account), that this matter is (however absurdly) yet likely to be considered out of the Society, as one of those pestilential political contests between different orders or ranks of the community into which every thing (for some time past) has been shamefully & diabolically converted, & as I have no wish to offend any body & should indeed be exceedingly sorry to be concerned in any thing which could be in the least dissagreable disagreeable to my Lords Romney & Radnor for whom I have the most sincere respect & esteem, & as there is now hanging up in the Societys Society's Rooms, a Letter from His Grace the Duke of Norfolk our worthy President, notifying his intention of moving for rescinding the Resolution of the Society respecting the removal of those portraits: the Publick3 & the Society will I hope excuse me if I should withdraw my intention of supplying any thing for those spaces over the Chimnies, to say the truth I feel a little hurt & cannot conceive the reasons or motives which might induce those or any other Noblemen to offer any opposition to what I had proposed4 & to what the Society had almost so unanimously adopted & as I have no respect for insolvable mysteries when they are out of their place & employed in any other concerns than in those of religion,5 this opposition is not edifying, tho though it be astonishing, had the portraits of these Noblemen been immoveable, been painted on the wall, the place might then be well considered as sacred, & I should hear with horror any proposal for blotting, for putting them out of existence to make room for any performance, tho though painted by Apelles6 himself, particularly that of my good Lord Romney for whom I feel a reverence & an affection almost filial, there is nothing of picture that could be brought into existence that could console me for the effacing any memorial of him, but the case was quite otherway, there was no necessity for putting any thing out of existence by embracing the opportunity that happily offered of creating something new.

I am sorry to inform the Society that, from the desire of expeditiously complying with their wishes, I had on Monday last brought M.r. Middleton 7 the Colourman in St Martins lane, to measure those spaces over the Chimnies for which he was to prepare two canvasses, and on the day after Tuesday when I came down to the Committee, saw the Presidents Letter & was informed of the intended opposition, I then requested the Secretary8 to call upon M.r Middleton in order to stop his proceeding & thereby save the Society the expence9 of about three pounds, the price of those Canvasses which were ordered for the Society, whether he has done it I know not, but the Society will now use its pleasure respecting that matter. As to the other part of my proposal of making use of the time of the recess of the Society10 for varnishing such part of the pictures in the Great Room as may want it, I have not heared heard of any intended opposition to it, & I do therefore request that the Society will be so good as to appoint a Committee of two or three of its members in order to see that I am provided with ladders or whatever may be necessary for that purpose.

I am My Lords & Gentlemen, with the most
hearty affectionate respect & regards your devoted
humble servant

James Barry

Wednesday May 6.th 1801

To the Most Noble the President, Vice Presidents & the rest of the Noblemen & Gentlemen of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts &c.