Letter from JAMES BARRY to SOCIETY OF ARTS, written 31 March 1801, at Castle Street, London

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

Barry had been working for some time on engravings of groups of figures in his paintings in the Great Room of the Society of Arts, The Progress of Human Culture. He now explains these. He also raises the issue of what to do with the portraits of former Presidents that hang in the Great Room, an issue that was later to be a source of great concern to him (see Barry to Society of Arts, 6 January 1803).

This letter was considered by the Committee of Polite Arts on 9 April 1801.

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My Lords & Gentlemen

I had the honour of presenting to the Society in June last about a fortnight before the termination of their Sessions,1 four prints of several groupes,2 three of them taken from the picture of Elysium3 in the Great Room, which as the figures come very large, near two feet high (, where all the details are fully comprehended,) , (where all the details are fully comprehended), give a much more dignified & adequate idea of the moral application of the work, than the small sett of Prints,4 which was published some years since, & is in the possession of many honourable members of the Society & of many others who had subscribed for them at the time. I have since made another addition on a slip of Copper, in consideration of some other figures which I wished to introduce near Columbus,5 as they associate admirably in that part. The illustrious & truly good queen Isabella of Castile,6 not only pawned her Jewells Jewels to assist ColombusColumbus in going on the discovery of the New World, but it further appears from the history of the time, that, her benevolent heart was ardently employed in protecting those newly discovered people from every outrage, & it was not until after her death, that the Spaniards let themselves loose in the exercise of those Cruelties & devastations which stiffen the reader with horror & which are faithfully recorded by the ever to be venerated Las Casas,7 who sits below Isabella, holding the very identical record of those brutalities under his arm, with another Tract or scroll of Laws for the protection of those poor unfortunate Indians, which after much dangerous bickering & contest & long solicitation at the Court of Spain, he at last happily obtained : . Also the introduction of the first Circumnavigator the intrepid Magellanus,8 who is at some little distance, give a finish & compleatness9 to this important part, the subject of Discovery, by which the two Hemispheres were united.10 At the very time when I was engraving this Slip of Copper & as I could find no portraits of Isabella of Castile or of Las Casas, had accordingly disposed of them by turning their faces into ye the picture so as not to err as to likeness & yet to identify their persons by some other means, a very happy incident took place wch which furnished me with all the information that could be obtained respecting Las Casas, Isabella & whatever concerned ye the discovery of America & even with a great deal more than perhaps I shall ever have occasion to make use of. An illustrious Stranger Gen.l Miranda11 having about that time seen my work at the Adelphi, & being much struck with ye the comprehension & utility of its views & the family resemblance of its spirit & disposition with those immortal works of Rafaelle12 with wch which he had been so well acquainted in ye the Vatican, & being determined being determined being determined being determined (as he told ye the Secretary & others who were present & who afterwards told me) to be acquainted with the & being determined to be acquainted with ye the painter of such a work (as he told ye the Secretary & others who were present & who afterwards told me) this acquaintance very fortunately for me took place shortly after, & from my notions respecting ye the military Character, I was not a little astonished to find in the General, the acquisitions & virtues of the Togati,13 so happily & in such an extraordinary degree blended once more with the profession of ye the Sword, as was ye the case with the Romans in the times of their Scipio’s & Agrippa’s14 & I can never forget the manly arguments he made use of in ye the justification of defensive & necessary war for the obtaining & securing social peace & happiness in order to induce me to inscribe on the Sheild15 of Epaminondas,16 that fine instance of military tacticks tactics first employed in ye the battle of Leuctra, by wch which that virtuous Theban not less celebrated for his Philosophy than Generalship, was enabled to pull down that Spartan Power wch which was so ill employed in subverting the Liberty & Happiness of the neighbouring States; so much for this Slip of Copper & to come back to the pictures.

As very much of the dignity & ethical application of the Pictures depended on the many important detailed circumstances, which required the magnitude of those four large Prints of the several groupes in order that they might be comprehended with all possible advantage; these prints of the four enlarged groupes may now be happily added to the small set which in the detailed parts & other groupes groups , will receive much illustration, grandeur & importance in being estimated in a similar manner by the mind of the spectator thus impregnated; so that those who have not seen the Pictures, by these large groupes groups , thus illustrating the small sett set , less is lost, & a much more dignified and Adequate idea of the work is communicated, than has fallen to the lot of some of the most celebrated works on the Continent, as will evidently appear on placing those large groupes groups beside any others, as Thomassin or Dorigny’s prints of the Transfiguration,17 or Audran’s famous print after Poussin, of the saving of young Pyrrus,18 which is the only true way of silencing the impertinent, invidious Criticism of low pidlingpiddling Artists & their silly abettors. so So that when I reflect, that, the opposition19 which has prevented me in other matters, has been eventually of such considerable service to the work in the Great Room, by providentially furnishing such an offtract20 or Memorial of it as may be seen & satisfactorily contemplated, where the pictures cannot, there is nothing to regret & it becomes a matter of gratulation, where the goodness of God may be recognized. With the publick21 reputation of these Pictures I have every reason to be gratified & flattered & there remains nothing further for me to wish, than, that the Society would have the goodness to favour their work on the Cultivation of the Human Faculties & me with their protection & countenance in the circulation (when occasion offers) of those large & small prints upon which so much labour & time have been expended, more especially, as this protection & countenance of the Society might now help to support me under the heavy oppressions of the malignity & envy which have followed the reputation of that undertaking, begining beginning with the second week of the Exhibition of the Pictures22 & going on, in one shape or other, with a steady continuance ever since: however as this has been so notoriously apparent I shall take no further notice of it, but proceed to an observation which is I think worthy to employ the attention & consideration of the Society. Viz, that altho although individuals are short lived & transitory, yet Societies, may be eternal, or at least of long duration. This being the case, it still remains to be considered by the Society that some arrangement ought necessarily to take place with respect to the pictures of the Presidents, as the example already set, in the two Noble personages23 whose pictures are placed over the two chimnies of the Great Room which cannot be followed any further, makes some other arrangement absolutely necessary, there being no other similar situations in that Room, these two Portraits, unconnected with everything else, stand like ominous obstructions to the further progression of the Society, besides being an unlooky24 interruption & breach of the continuity of the work round the Room. By the removal of these two portraits, to the Committee or to some other Room,25 where the example can be followed by similar portraits of the most Noble or other great personages who shall succeed each other in the Presidency, that matter would be properly disposed of. When the Society many years since, placed these two portraits over the Chimnies in their Great Room, no idea was then entertained of any thing further than continuing the same arrangement by placing similar portraits of their Presidents near each other on the same walls, according to their succession, in conformity with the general usage as is seen in Town halls & other places of general resort. But since that time, having, (if I may use the expression) consecrated these walls of their Great Room to a more Intellectual destination & of a much more extensive publicity, which might comprehend whatever should have a tendency to the improvement of useful Arts & ye the consequent melioration of Society & might at the same time serve as the Mausoleum of those benefactors of mankind who have been the true ornaments of their several Ages & Countries & whose exemplary memorial it is so much our interest to preserve. All these reasons taken together will surely induce the Society to adopt another arrangement by which these two portraits over the Chimnies may be removed to some other place. The two Noblemen whom they represent, would be the first to advise it, could they be consulted on the occasion: one of these Noblemen I had the honour of knowing sufficiently to affirm, that, his delicate sense of propriety & his Zeal for the Society would exclude all doubt on this occasion, or otherwise my sincere veneration for his amiable memory would never suffer one to propose it; & by all accounts Lord Folkstone (whom I did not know) was a man of similar character to his relation the late Lord Romney. Under the idea then, that these two portraits will be removed & as it is of all things my earnest wish to leave that work in the Great Room, in the most perfect state to which my abilities can attain, I am (if it should meet the wishes of the Society) ready to execute such Designs for those Spaces over the Chimnies as may not only correspond with the ethical & Patriotic views of the rest of the work which goes round the Room, but which from their important central situations may become very principal & as it were, sources of vitality to the other parts. The space over that Chimney between the two National Subjects of the Thames & the Society26 may be filled with matter the most pertinent, patriotic & moral, which could not fail of being exceedingly popular, as it is in great measure called for by the circumstances of the time & most perfectly congenial with the views of the Society: and for the other space between the Orpheus & the Harvest Home I have made a Design, than which nothing can be more apposite & illustrative of one of the most classical & important matters respecting the manufactures of the Ancient world & which is indeed wanting in that place. These two Pictures, in those central important situations would crown the work with all necessary propriety & interest & would cost but little, as I believe the materials, Canvass & all would not exceed Ten pounds, & the meetings of the Society need not be interupted interrupted .27

But whether or not, the Society may chuse to acceed choose to accede to this proposal of substituting these two cooperating designs in lieu of the two portraits over the Chimnies of their Great Room, yet I must request leave to mention to them, that, as certain parts of the Olympian Victors, the Elysium & the other pictures which had been retouched whe when I was last at work in the room, could not then inwithwith prudence be varnished & now stand much in need of it, it would oblige me very much to have permission for doing this Justice to those parts, during the summer recess of the Society, if Almighty God my good & indulgent Patron shall afford me health for it, if not, I request & most earnestly intreat entreat the Society that they will have the goodness never to permit any one else to touch those Pictures under the pretext of varnishing or under any pretext whatever. In the midst of so much mistaken pursuit of Art, either so low & inconsequential, or so Alien & uninteresting to the National reputation & so utterly inadequate to its true dignity & to what ought to be expected. In such times it will be well to have at least the discretion of preserving unsullied for posterity, whatever we may have of a contrary Character.

With all possible respect & affection for the Society
I have, my Lords & Gentlemen the honour to
Subscribe myself your most faithful &
devoted humble servant

James Barry

March ye the 31.st 1801.

To the Most Noble the President,28 Vice Presidents & the rest of the
Noblemen & Gentlemen of the Society for the Encouragement
of the Arts &c. -----