Letter from JAMES BARRY to DR. JOSEPH FENN SLEIGH, written ante 17 June 1765, at London

Source: Fryer,Works of Barry, i. 15-17.

Fryer gives no indication as to where in London or when Barry is writing.

Dr. Joseph Fenn Sleigh (1733-70), Quaker and art connoisseur, practised as a physician in Cork. He had attended the Quaker school at Ballitore soon after Edmund Burke was a pupil there and later studied medicine in Edinburgh where he knew Oliver Goldsmith (1730-74). He was on the staff of the North Infirmary Hospital, Cork from 1759 until his death. Goldsmith wrote an elegy on him (Tim Cadogan and Jeremiah Falvey, A Biographical Dictionary of Cork (Dublin, 2006), p. 311). He was a life-long acquaintance of Edmund Burke; Sleigh's letter to Burke, dated 17 June 1765, remarks that Barry ‘acknowledges in every letter to me the numberless obligations he lies under to you’ (Burke, Correspondence i. 204); Sleigh had a letter such as the following in mind.

Barry left Dublin for London early in 1764 in the company of Edmund Burke’s brother Richard (1733-94). Edmund Burke found him work with the painter and designer James Stuart (1713-88), [go] who was at the time surveyor of Greenwich Hospital and painter to the Society of Dilettanti; he is often referred to as ‘Athenian’ Stuart after his celebrated Antiquities of Athens Measured and Delineated by J[ames] S[tuart] and N[icholas] R[evett], 4 vols., London, 1762 -1816, of which the first volume had recently been published. Burke subscribed to the work and reviewed it in the Annual Register, 1763, remarking that the book was 'in every respect, as original and informing, as if no other on the subject had gone before it' (p. 247).

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Dear Sir,

My long silence (after the kind injunctions you laid upon me to the contrary in the only letter I had the pleasure of receiving from you)1 would make an apology very necessary, but that I have reason to think you will ascribe it to any thing rather than to neglect or indifference, and without troubling you with any excuses, I shall inform you, that the variety of manners and perfections, which I have met with in my ramble, has given me an opportunity of making many alterations in, as well as adding considerably to my little stock of observation. I believe myself improving daily, a very acceptable piece of news to you. At present I am at a kind of journey work2 for Mr. Stewart, Hogarth's successor, where I am likely to have a great deal of satisfaction. 3This was brought about by your friend Mr. Burke, and though very essential to me, is far from being the greatest of my obligations to him. As he has introduced me to the most considerable artists,4 I am tempted to observe something of the state of the arts here.

No doubt you have seen that volume of Stewart's Athens, which has been published, and it will be unnecessary to say any thing of the depth of his acquaintance in matters of antiquity and literature. The pictures, and every thing of his designing, are distinguished by that unaffected air of the antients, which alone constitutes true taste, and is joined to such a certainty of outline and mythology, as is rarely found any where else. My friend and countryman Barret does no small honour to landscape painting amongst us; I have seen nothing to match with his last year's premium picture.5 It has discovered to me a very great want in the aerial part of my favourite Claude's performances.6 You know his skies are clear and uniform, without object, except now and then a small light cloud skirting in his horizon or zenith: while Barret presents you with such a glorious assemblage, as I have sometimes seen amongst high mountains rising into unusual agreeable appearances, whilst the early beams of the sun sport themselves, if you will allow the expression, through the vast arcades, and sometimes glance on a remote farm-house or great lake, whose ascending vapours spread themselves like a veil over the distance. 7Claude's admirers affirm in his vindication, his want of masses in the clouds, &c. to be owing to the clearness and undisturbed serenity of the air of Italy where he studied; 8 this is but transferring the defect from the man to the performance, and between ourselves, I believe it is rather owing to the uninventive genius of Claude, and I think, is not the only mark of timidity which may be discovered in that sweet artist.

There is one Stubbs here, who paints horses and other animals with a surprising reality. He is very accurate, and the anatomy of a horse, which he has etched from dissections he made, will be soon published, and may be worth your seeing.9

To avoid too great a trespass on your patience, I proposed breaking off with taking notice of the great advance of portrait painting since it has got into the hands of Mr. Reynolds,10 but as you have seen his pictures when you were in England, no one is more capable of discerning the greatness and the delicacy of his style, the propriety of his characters, his great force of light and shadow and taste of colouring. Another time I shall conclude this catalogue, as there are painters and other artists not mentioned, whom I admire. Perhaps there may be some deficiencies as well as faults justly charged upon our artists, but I will affirm with great confidence, that there is nothing too far stretched in the particulars I have mentioned, as they have been often confirmed by my friend Mr. Burke, of whose taste and discernment you want no proof.

Mr. Burke desires to be remembered to you as to the person for whom he has the most real affection, of which no one has had more experience, or can affirm it with a better assurance, than

Your obliged humble servant,

James Barry.