Letter from JAMES BARRY to SOCIETY OF ARTS, written 26 November 1801, at Castle Street, London

Source: Transactions of the Society of Arts, vol. XIX (1801), pp. xxvii-lxiii.

The Society wanted to publish in their Transactionsan explanation by Barry of the changes he had made to his pictures The Progress of Human Culture in the Great Room of the Society at the Adelphi. The Secretary, Charles Taylor, had written on 17 November asking Barry for his final remarks, since the journal was already in the press. Barry responded by sending this revised version of the letter he had written to the Society on 25 October. In this new version he omits much about his personal dealings with the Society's committee and concentrates on his ideas about the paintings and allied issues, in particular his design of a Naval Pillar in one of the paintings. [img] Large sections of this letter are taken directly from the earlier letter.

The letter as published was prefaced by the following remarks: 'The Society have been favoured by JAMES BARRY, Esq. with the following Account of the late additional Improvements made by him in the PICTURES in their Great Room, which were begun in the year 1777 by that eminent Artist.'

In the latter part of the letter he takes up the issue of providing a new design for the Society's medal; this had been a matter of discussion since June (see Society of Arts to Barry, post 19 June 1801).

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No. 36 Castle-Street, Oxford-Street,
November 26, 1801.

MR. BARRY presents his respectful compliments to the most noble the President,1 the Vice-President, and the rest of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, &c. and having in a letter, dated October 25, 1801, communicated to them his reasons at large for the several matters of recent introduction into the Pictures he has executed in their Great Room, he now, in compliance with the request of their Committee of Correspondence and Papers,2 offers to them such explanatory extracts therefrom, as he conceives may be of some use to the Members of the Society, and the Public at large.

Mr. Barry has exemplified his idea for the improvement of Medals and Coins, originally suggested in a letter to His Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, dated July 31, 1798 (see Letter to the Dilettanti Society, p.218, 8vo. edit.)3 by introducing into the Picture of the Society4 two models for Medals or Coins; the one, a more than profile female head, with the imperial shield of Great Britain and Ireland suspended from her shoulder; the other, a head of Alfred,5 the great improver and founder: the latter of which he adopted from necessity, not from choice, as he had no portrait of his present Majesty with which he was satisfied. He was particularly desirous to shelter this improvement under the wings of the Society, as he thought it probable that the noble relievo,6 and the security of that relievo exemplified in those heads, would be imitated in our coinage; and, from its obvious utility and dignity, be adopted all over Europe: and, in an object of such importance as the conservation of the portraiture and inscription, two points of the highest desiderata ,7 the lead would be taken by a Society which has given rise to so many others, and has been so long remarkable for its exemplary, patriotic, and philanthropic conduct.

As the suggestions in the former letter to the Privy Council were delivered generally, without the specification of those minute particulars necessary for the execution of Mr. Barry’s ideas, the person8 who executed the new Halfpenny and Farthing, issued shortly after, entirely misconceived Mr. Barry’s idea of the proper convexity, or of the cavo bed9 in which it should have been raised; the spirit had evaporated in his ill-managed experiment, and there was nothing remaining but a residuum,10 a mere caput mortuum 11 of little value, by which one important part was unnecessarily sacrificed to the other, and consequently nothing desirable obtained, but rather the contrary; as the head, which ought to be most important and principal, is flat, and without relievo, and triflingly buried in the centre of the coin, like a mite in a cheese, in order to allow space for an unnecessarily mischievous circle of large letters, which might have been so well disposed of in another manner, according to the usage of the Greeks. Nay, even in the halfpenny and farthing of George II. the head, as it should always do, importantly fills the coin,12 and the circular inscription is even so contrived as to be subservient to that end.

If the contrivance visible on the slightest glance at those models had been adopted, the fine heads on the Grecian and Roman coins, those of the Hamerani’s13 on the Papal medals, or those admirable ones executed by Hedlinger14 for Sweden, though now so liable to injury from their bold and noble relievo, as to be exposed to speedy ruin from time and usage, might preserve their most essential parts from being injured until those parts, which were least essential, had been entirely worn away. Thus, too, one of our current half-crowns of King William [img], or Queen Anne [img],15 had they been executed in this way, would have gone through many centuries, and from the wearing would be hardly worth a shilling, by the time the likeness and inscription, the two most essential parts, came to be injured. It is worth remarking, that those of the Grecian and Roman coins which are preserved in the collections of the curious, are not those which were in constant use, but those which, from the superstitious notions of the time, were buried while fresh with their dead, in order to satisfy the demands of a certain grisly Ferryman,16 or any other that might occur in their long and gloomy journey, or from some other accidents or calamities; all the rest which were subject to the vicissitudes of current usage being obliterated ages ago.

The better to elucidate these two models, Mr. Barry introduced an aged figure stooping over them,17 looking very intently on a medal, and holding in his other hand a letter or paper on which is written, “On the gousto18 of Medals and Coins, and the best mode of preserving them from injuries by friction,” the identical wish expressed by the Privy Council to the Royal Academy, and which produced Mr. Barry’s letter before referred to. On the same paper is also introduced the necessary section of such a coin.

These ideas Mr. Barry had the honour of submitting, immediately after their introduction into the Picture, to the Right Honourable the Earl of Liverpool, in a letter dated July 3, 1801.19

It may be well, before closing these remarks on Medals and Coins, to take notice here of a very curious and extraordinary particular, which occurs in those coins that are supposed to be the most ancient, and are placed amongst the incognita , as they are without mark or inscription of any kind, which might denote time or place, and are no less remarkable for the transcendant excellence of their style of highly-cultivated design and execution than for their extraordinary and perfect preservation, which is owing to their great relievo, and to the rising of the metal round the sides of the square coffers in which they are bedded, like the roses in the architectonic soffita’s, and the hieroglyphics on the Egyptian obelisks.20 A few of those most extraordinary and unaccountable of all numismatic remains may be found in Dr. Hunter’s truly noble collection;21 and, as far as they go, for a female head and its kerchief or accompaniment, they are but rarely (if at all) equalled even by the Greeks themselves, either Asiatic or European, or their Sicilian or Italian colonies. These Coins have all the simplicity of the Egyptian bas-relief,22 but without its bald uniformity, or the petite, wirey, husky, dry, cutting manner of either the Persian, Hetruscan Etruscan , or Punic Coins. They exhibit a venustas23 and unrestrained easy, urbane, graceful deportment, which appears equally to have resulted from the high cultivation and amenity of the state of society where the artist found his models, as of the delicacy and ability with which those models were imitated. Herodotus (in Clio) says, “that the Lydians were the first of all the nations we know, who introduced the art of coining gold and silver to facilitate trade, and first practised the way of retailing merchandize.”24 This perhaps is the reason why these Coins are supposed to be Lydian,25 as they are evidently prior to the Greeks, and appear to have been imitated in the Grecian settlements of Ionia; and yet the Greeks seem to have had no Coins in Homer’s time,26 as he does not any where allude to them: and it is difficult to bring one’s self to believe that the remarkable perfection of these coins could have been effected by Heraclidae,27 who were settled in Sardis, admitting these Heraclidae to have been the descendants of that Grecian Hercules, the friend of Philoctetes,28 so memorable in the Trojan war; and that the Greeks before and in Homer’s time could have been such strangers to coinage. It is difficult also to reconcile with the sum of things, the names of Belus, and his grandson Ninus,29 which occur in the list of these Heraclidae: so many difficulties start up on every side, as would induce one to look for a higher origin of these Heraclidae, the supposed inventors of Coinage; and instead of Hercules the friend of Philoctetes, to substitute the Titannic Titanic 30 Hercules, the friend and relation of Atlas,31 who flourished many ages before. This would comport better with the highly-cultivated gusto of those Coins, so completely estranged as they are from all the different modes and degrees of barbarism of the surrounding nations. They stand insulated like that mundane system of Pythagoras’s importation,32 and cannot be ascribed to any known people, except perhaps to these Titans or Atlantides,33 whence so many other knowledges seem to have been derived as from a common source. But Coinage is not traceable farther back than in this supposed Lydian money, which we find in a state of complete perfection, without any of those previous stages of progressive growth which must incontrovertibly have preceded that perfection.

In order to finish entirely this part of the subject, Mr. Barry begs leave to add, from a letter read by him to the Society, October 25, 1801, that in consequence of the application for designs for a new die for their Medal, he stated his intention of introducing a modification of their former design, which he thought would fully answer their intended purpose. The more the subject matter of that design is considered, the more one must admire and respect the sterling good sense and weighty consideration of the original Founders of the Society. Nothing can be more happily imagined than the idea consisting of Britannia aided by Minerva and Mercury,34 the classical tutelary deities of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce; and this old device, like many other good old usages, cannot be amended by any change in the substratum. It requires nothing more in its essence, and will most happily coalesce and accommodate with all the acquisitions and improvements of the most enlarged and refined culture. For this purpose, a little more of goût and character in the figures, is all that is necessary; enlarging them so as to fill the space with more dignity, and taking away from their individual scattered appearance by the little graces and arts of a more improved composition. And as there is always a considerable dignity and consequence attached to magnitude, which is one of the constituents of sublimity, 35 his suggested alterations would amount simply to this—to substitute, instead of the little entire figures of Minerva and Mercury, only two large heads of those deities; and he would omit the head of Britannia altogether; and by a wreath of the shamrock, rose, and thistle,36 boldly rising round the edge of the Medal, playing in and out in a graceful gustoso37 manner, he would represent the present happily united Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,38 with a felicity at least equal to the owl, the horse’s head, or the dolphins, on the Athenian, Punic, or Sicilian coins. It may be observed, by the way, that this mode of rim, with an enlarged noble head of His Majesty, with the relieved and incused parts gracefully and happily diversified, and the inscription well secured within, would not be unworthy of the Royal Mint. 39

Another matter which Mr. Barry is happy in offering to the attention of the Society, is a Naval Pillar which he has introduced in the picture of the Thames, or Triumph of Navigation.40 This design occurred to his mind at the time when his Royal Highness the Duke of Clarence,41 and other Noblemen and Gentlemen, associated for the purpose, advertised their idea of obtaining designs for a Naval Pillar, or other trophy, which might serve for the commemoration of great national achievements.42 In consequence, however, of the dark and mysterious opposition which had so long followed him, and of which he has had such frequent reason to complain,43 Mr. Barry laid aside the design till its connexion with the subject of this picture of the Thames, pressed upon him with accumulated and irresistible force; and finding nothing had been done, which would answer the intended purpose, to his satisfaction, he rolled the scaffold to the picture, and began such a trophy of a mausoleum, observatory, or lighthouse, as is no where else in existence, and he believes never had existence before. Nothing can have more simplicity and naïveté than the idea of it as a totality; the British Tars44 so well and obviously typified by the naval Gods, the Tritons,45 upon sea-horses, dashing up the sides of a rock, upon the top of which they erect this trophy to the first Naval Power.

Mr. Barry cannot help pausing to notice the dark designs of interested individuals against his honour, his interest, and his peace; and especially as they have been so managed as to influence the mind of his Sovereign. Amongst other reports equally unfounded, it has been generally said that His Majesty had been induced to believe that Mr. Barry had written the Supplement to Pilkington’s Dictionary of Painters,46 where, page 825, the King is grossly abused.47 This, had he been allowed the opportunity, he could then, as he does now, have flatly contradicted; and have then affirmed, as he does now, that he had never any part or concern in the writing or devising that Supplement; and that, though his name was impudently and fraudulently affixed to it, yet that he had no knowledge whatever of any such matter, until, in common with the rest of his Majesty’s subjects, he saw it, after its publication, with a garbled portion of his Letter to the Dilettanti bound up along with it.—This justification he offered in a Letter addressed to His Majesty, and afterwards inserted in the Morning Post of December 3, 1799. Whether it ever was laid before His Majesty or not, Mr. Barry is uncertain; but a matter so flagitiously fraudulent he cannot resist every opportunity of denying.

In the year 1792, it appeared that Mr. Barry had occasion to offer another (though much more limited) scheme for a national Mausoleum (see page 28, Letter to the Dilettanti),48 where the subjects sculptured in the round and in basso-relievo, being all near the eye, afforded to the spectator every opportunity of considering them with convenience, pleasure, and utility, the want of which was so deeply regretted by all who had seen the fine column at Rome, erected to commemorate the victories of Trajan;49 the greatest part of these fine sculptures being to every purpose of desirable inspection, as much lost and buried in the air, as if they had been so many feet under ground; and the beautiful labour bestowed upon them could never be appreciated but in the plaster casts, moulded from them at two different times, and from the prints of Pietro Sancto Bartoli,50 executed from these casts. No doubt the statue of the Emperor, placed on the top of this column, might, from its magnitude, be less liable to suffer by the distance as a totality, and might be seen all over Rome, which was the grand motive that induced to the undertaking, and would in every respect have been worthy the great artist and most excellent Emperor, had another form of shaft been adopted, which would have admitted of an exterior ascent, like this in the picture of the Thames: then nothing would have been lost in the appreciation of such admirable workmanship, as the bas-relief all the way up. But this had not occurred hitherto in any instance, ancient or modern, except in such where there was nothing of sculptural record to inform as to the subject matter, and to give delight by the dignified, impressive manner of conveying that information. The column of Antoninus51 is liable to the same objections as this of Trajan, and still further aggravated by the clumpy, too much detached way of rendering the sculptured groups, which is not less injurious to the general effect, than perplexing and disgusting when considered singly. Of the same nature with these of Trajan and Antoninus is the great column at Constantinople,52 though, no doubt, from the intervening decline of the arts, greatly inferior in gusto of every kind: and as to Pompey’s Pillar at Alexandria,53 it commemorates nothing, except perhaps by something on the pedestal.

As the Pyramids of Egypt have been contrived, their immense mass seems thrown away, without use, as nothing is recorded on them, either in the universal language of forms, or in those more confined and precarious hieroglyphic or alphabetical characters; and all succeeding ages have been utterly unable to divine the utility adequate to such expensive constructions. It may be disputed, whether the Chaldaic Temple of Belus54 and the tower within it, was of equal antiquity with the Pyramids in Egypt; but, according to the account in Herodotus, this Chaldaic tower was by much a more artist-like performance, and from what will appear below, more appositely convertible to various purposes of the most interesting utility. This Babylonian tower consisted of square bodies placed one on the other. The first body or platform was (to use the words of Herodotus55) of one stadium in height, and in length and breadth of the same measure. On this tower another is built, and a third upon that, till they make up the number of eight. The ascent to these is by a circular way carried round the outside of the building to the highest part. We are enabled to form a clear conception of the circular ascent round the several square stories of this building in Chaldea, by adverting to the account published by the Rev. Father Clavigero,56 of the ancient pyramidal temples in Mexico and the country about it, which appear to have been constructed with more genius than those of Egypt, and to the great surprise of all who have concerned themselves in matters of antiquity, are found to be constructed after identically the same mode with this of Chaldea, consisting of a certain number of stories, round each of which their processions marched, ascending by a separate flight of steps at the same angle of each.

One of these Mexican temples consisted of nine stories or platforms; others were of a single body, in the form of a pyramid, with a stair-case. The height of the Pyramid of Cholula was, by Clavigero’s account, upwards of 500 feet. “One may ascend (says he) to the top by a path made in a spiral direction round the pyramid, and I went up on horseback in 1744.” 57 But the architecture of the great temples was for the most part the same with that of the great temple of Mexico,58 which though of a great height, so as to afford a view of the lake, the cities around, and a great part of the valley of Mexico, and affirmed by eye-witnesses to be the finest prospect in the world—yet, notwithstanding this great height, consisted but of five bodies or stories, perhaps in order to allow space for the plain or upper area on the fifth body, which was about forty-three perches long and thirty broad, upon which they performed their sacrifices in the view of such an immense concourse of people as this great altitude would afford towards their becoming participants in what was going forward. Nothing architectural could have been more ingeniously contrived to exhibit with all conceivable splendor, not only the spectacle on the platform, but also the processional part, moving on all sides in every plain as it ascended. But when one reflects that the victims were human, and that 72,344 of them were sacrificed on this platform, in one festival of four days continuance, at the dedication of this temple,59 it is not to be wondered that the Spaniards demolished, and suffered not a stone of it to remain standing. And yet it had been better, perhaps, to have adopted a different conduct, and to have suffered the temple to remain; and, in lieu of the former horrid butchery, to have performed, in the presence of this misguided people, their own christian, unbloody sacrifice, which, from its relation to the oblation at Calvery Calvary 60 of that lamb which was slain from the beginingbeginning, had happily attoned for all, and precluded the necessity of any other sacrifice. Such a substitution would there have been evangelical indeed; as almost all over that part of the western hemisphere, islands, and continent, every man had a chance of becoming an ill-fated prisoner, and consequently one in the dreadful list of victims. But the time presses, and will not admit of much excursion, however agreable, or even perhaps necessary, towards the just appreciation of certain parts of the subject in hand. Let so much then suffice, as it will sufficiently authorise the observation, that the British Pillar, in the picture of the Thames, possesses every advantage enjoyed in those famed pyramidal, obeliscal, or columnal fabrications of Egypt, Chaldea, Rome, or America, with advantages peculiar to itself, of still higher value than all that it may have in common with those celebrated vestiges of antiquity. This British Naval Pillar, Mausoleum, Observatory, Light-house, or whatever it may be called, as they are all united in the same structure, which, by a very legitimate flight of classical imagination, these Tritons, or sea-gods, have erected to the first Naval Power, will admit of whatever advantages may be obtained from altitude; and, if the settling of snow would permit, it may be raised high enough to see (as Saussure61 did) the moon and constellations moving in a jet black vault at noon day; whilst the easy unembarrassed road all the way up, might feast the eye, the mind, and the heart, with all desirable national, ethical, or other exemplary useful information. Although this building is at too great a distance in the picture to afford accurate inspection of detailed particulars, yet it is near enough for a general view, as is sufficiently apparent from the group of figures on the basement, looking at one of the basso-relievo’s, which, by the fleet of ships and the distant pyramids, might represent the brave Nelson’s victory at the Nile;62 whilst some more youthful characters appear eagerly attentive to what is said with so much energy, as would appear by the action and stretched-out hands of the speaker. At the end of the bridge which connects this building with the chalky shore, is a triumphal arch, through which processions might pass; and, at some distance, under the bridge is seen a more humble, though not less endearing prospect of a village church steeple and fishing-boats, with the men pulling in their nets. A seventy-four gun ship is to windward of the Naval Pillar, stretching out to sea, and a fleet just appearing in the offing.

In the fifth picture, viz. that of the Society,63 Mr. Barry has also introduced a Tea-kitchen, or Vase for boiling water, which he offers as an improvement on those in general use, which in many respects have been so vulgarly and ill contrived, that, much as he loves tea, yet he can never see these complicated, tasteless urns or vases without disgust, resting, as they generally do, on a sort of pedestals with additional feet to them, handles unaccounted for, but stuck on merely for the purpose; and the water issuing from an odious, insulated, defenceless, feeble conveyance, stuck in like a spigot in a barrel.64 In lieu of all this tasteless complicated vulgarity, the vase, in the picture of the Society, is of the simplest and least complicated kind; and if any idea results from its general appearance, it is the sublime suggestion of the Grecian cosmogony,65 the primaeval egg of ancient mother Night, suspended between two mysterious serpents, the principle of regenerating vitality, the convolutions of whose bodies, flung in the air, naturally furnish the handles, and their tails afford the stable circular foot or basis on which the whole rests; whilst the passage for the water of life within, is controuled66 by the little Psyche67 or button in the centre, where the heads of those serpents meet at bottom. Perhaps there is nothing in the immense collection of antique vases in Passeri, or Sir William Hamilton,68 so classical and completely Grecian as this idea, whilst it is certain that nothing can be more completely adapted to every purpose of security and utility.

There are also some other particulars, of recent introduction, in this picture of the Society, as well as in that of the Elysium;69 but whatever observations may occur on them will be better reserved for some other time, as this letter is getting too long.