Letter from JAMES BARRY to SOCIETY OF ARTS, written 26 October 1784, at Suffolk Street, London

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

Barry replies to Samuel More, Secretary of the Society of Arts (More to Barry, 18 October 1784), explaining why he has not been able to complete the work he had hoped to do on his pictures The Progress of Human Culture.

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M.r Barry presents his respectful Comp.ts Compliments to the Right Hon’ble Honourable the President 1 Vice presidents and the rest of the Gentlemen of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts &c. and has to inform them that it was out of his power to do any thing to the work in the Great Room since the Exhibition closed as his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales2 either has not had leisure […] [gap in transcription (), word: 1] has not been reminded or from some accident or other has perhaps forgotten to send the message which M.r Barry was desired to expect, the fourth picture viz.t3 that of the Society is therefore unfinished as the last hand could not be given to the other parts until the principal figure was compleated.4 There were also some little matters intended to be done in ye the other pictures, but these whether done or not are considerations of no great consequence, the work in its grand essentials is entire & compleated completed and is sufficiently advanced in the inferior parts, perhaps more so than will generally be found in works of similar extent.

When the work was begun the Author would have compounded for much less than it has produced as the latent beauties that were continually develloping developing themselves in pursuing the Ethical and Heroical subjects he had interwoven led him agreably agreeably on to an extent far beyond what could have been imagined in the outset;5 he has many thanksthanks to offer the Society for the very great pleasure this long exertion has afforded him and the satisfaction he now enjoys in having out done his own expectations can only receive abatement from the consideration that as it is still short of his own idea of what it might be & from causes not worth enumerating is now likely to remain so, it is so far an Offering less worthy the Publick6 acceptance than his zeal and good wishes intended to present them with. It was foreseen some time since that this would inevitably happen & therefore his next hope was that the produce7 of the two Exhibitions might perhaps enable him to sit down at his ease and fairly satisfy himself with executing some work altogether unconnected with circumstances out of his own command which he intended depositing for the Publick in one of the City Halls, in this he has been dissapointed disappointed , the Exhibitions were not productive, to the first there came six thousand, four hundred forty one persons8 including M.r Jonas Hanway,9 who on coming out of the Exhibition insisted upon taking back the shilling he had paid for admittance and leaving a Guinea instead of it; at the second Exhibition there were three thousand five hundred & eleven, so that the total of both those Exhibitions made by the Society in order to indemnify M.r Barry for his time & trouble amounted to the sum of five hundred and three pounds twelve shillings.10

The people at large struck as might naturally be supposed with a matter of such magnitude & attended with circumstances so unprecedented in the history of Arts & Artists were staring at each other (and with a disposition which M.r Barry must ever with11 affection and gratitude) waiting to know what they should say and how they should act from the example of those great folk who alone have the priviledge12 to stamp fashion and a temporary consequence upon every thing that appears in the Country. But when these do not chuse choose to lead the way to it a raree–show13 must wither and be attended with but little pecuniary advantage, for tis it is well known that the mere number of those who go to Exhibitions of pictures for the gratification of real curiosity contributes but in a small degree to the sum generally raised on those occasions. Matters would have gone very differently with the Exhibition at the Adelphi if those great personages had bestowed upon it the tenth part of that attention and solicitude which gave so much Eclat to the Jubilee of hackney’d German Musick14 which even when it had novelty to boast could not lawfully bring any reputation to the country, but even if it had, that time was long since passed and the mere repetition of such stale matters must even to foreigners themselves appear far fetched and ridiculous to say no worse. What might not have been done for the Publick and for the reputation of the Country of a durable and permanent nature with the enormous sum of sixteen (some say eighteen) thousand pounds trifled away on this empty hubbubb hubbub of hundreds of fiddles & drums which was dissipated in the air as soon as performed and left nothing remaining for posterity but a confused rumour of a Fine- shew show (litterally literally the eulogium of every one present) consisting of well dressed people of the first rank & Condition, great Lords and Ladies with white wands, blue ribbons and medals which were ranged in order upon scaffolds erected at Westminster Abbey in the year 1784. These untoward circumstances are no otherwise worth M.r Barry’s particular regret or recollection than as they have been instrumental in marring his present and he fears future intended engagements of a Publick nature, therefore the bare mention of them will he hopes plead his apology with the Society and the publick at large if he should feel a disinclination to proceed any further, the good people of England when fairly left to themselves have never been found wanting in a relish for publick spirit, when the intention appears to have been good their generous indulgence will allow for some deficiencies in performance more especially if the skill (such as it may be) of the performer has been prevented exercising itself to the utmost.

M.r Barry is very sensible of the politeness of the Society in the inconvenience they must have suffered by being so long deprived of the use of their Great Room,15 he is much obliged to them and has a great respect and value for their Institution which has so largely contributed to the utility and ornament of the Country and in the conclusion of his transaction with them M.r Barry hopes the Society will have the goodness to gratify him in two requests, the first is that for fifty years to come they may not (under the notion of varnishing, touching or on any account whatever16 suffer any painter to meddle with the Series of Pictures he has the honour to leave with them, after that time he flatters himself the work will be able to protect itself. The other request is that as M.r Barry is engaged in the very laborious undertaking of making prints from his work in the Great Room he hopes the Society will be so good as to give order to all the people about their House that no person be permitted to make any drawing or copy of the pictures from which Prints might be made,17 which would render his pecuniary prospects in this new labour as barren and unproductive as they have been in the other. former one.

If the good Lord Romney and M.r Hooper18 should be in the Room when this note is read, M.r Barry wishes they would accept of his particular thanks for the kind indulgence they have shewn shown in so long permitting him to postpone finishing their two portraits for the one of which (a whole lenght length ) his Lordship paid a hundred and M.r Hooper for the other (a head) twenty guineas, obligingly insisting at the same time that no more should be done to those pictures than was necessary to be copied into the larger one of the Society and that the rest be reserved until M.r Barry had more leisure after he had done with his very laborious work.

M.r More19 Secretary to the Society did last week send a paper (a copy of which follows) in order to obtain M.r Barry’s consent for the publication of it in the news papers. a papers. A copy of it follows.

“Adelphi Octob.r October 20. 1784. Notice is hereby given that the first meeting of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce for the ensuing season will be held at their House in the Adelphi on Wednesday next the 27.th instant at Six o Clock in the Evening. By order of the Society Sam.l More Secretary. N. B. James Barry Esq.r R.A. and Professor of Painting to the Royal Academy having compleated the Series of Pictures painted by him for the decoration of the Great Room the meetings of the Society will henceforward be held therein.”

This nota bene 20 at the bottom of the Society’s advertizement looked oddly as M.r More could be no stranger to the real state of the pictures and that nothing had been done to them since the Exhibition closed. M.r Barry will however if the Society think proper readily give his consent to the publication of this note either with or without this part of it relating to M.r More, it does indeed appear highly proper (and so far M.r More was right) to give the Nation at large some information respecting the final state of a work of which they have heard so much.

October the 26.th 1784
Suffolk S.t at Marcellis’,21 Number 29.