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

Source: Fryer,Works of Barry, i. 19-23.

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.

Fryer gives no date or place for the letter; references to two art exhibitions in London and to the deaths of certain artists indicate the letter was written from London about mid-1765; Barry’s comments on painters seem a response to Sleigh’s remark, ‘I hope you will…continue your agreeable account of the artists’ (Sleigh to Barry, 17 June 1765).

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Dear Sir,

As there was nothing I wished for more than the favor of a line from you, your obliging letter gave me great satisfaction.1 I am still at work for Mr. Stewart,2 and not likely to think of any thing else God knows how long, having weaned myself as much as possible from the thoughts of going to Italy; which has already been attended with too much disappointment and vexation.3 I endeavour to content myself with things as they are, things that may possibly be reached at, and I hope have done it. My nights and other leisure (which I have but seldom) are laid out upon volumes of antiques and whatever else I can come at. From these books of Maffei, de Caylus, &c. I can get little more than loose general ideas of an attitude, a character, or an intention;4 their cuts5 are too small and too inaccurate to afford any other benefit; the peculiarities of an attitude, character, or intention, that detail of minutiae, which is the true object of the inquiries of an artist, are only to be had generally speaking from the antiques6 themselves or their casts, of which there are some very good ones at the Duke of Richmond's, and other places, as well as old pictures of great merit, which are all very accessible.7 But as this access is only to be had in the day, it is lost to me, as that time is required to other things, which though not so desirable, are yet the necessary means of procuring a livelihood and independence: this would be the case with me at best, if I was in Italy. I cannot then take the direct path; yet while any other remains, I shall never be intimidated. If I should chance to have genius, or any thing else, it is so much the better, but my hopes are grounded upon a most unwearied intense application, of which I am not sparing, and though it may be more directly and better applied, it is impossible it could be greater or given with more cheerfulness. At present I have little to shew that I value, my work is all underground, digging and laying foundations, which with God's assistance I may hereafter find the use of. I every day centre more and more upon the art, I give myself totally to it, and except honor and conscience, am determined to renounce every thing else; though this may appear enthusiastic, or rather extravagant, it is really the state of my mind.

This last year has deprived us of Hogarth, Smith, Lambert, and Butts.8 Lambert was certainly a very agreeable painter, his objects were truly represented, excellently well coloured, and did not want harmony altogether. His choice is generally said to be very natural, but I think very familiarwould be more just; for though the familiar may be natural, the natural you know is not always familiar; and there are other things in the world besides the barns, hogs, and haystacks, which Mr. Lambert was so very fond of.9 He failed much in the more noble walks; instead of the immense, rugged, and tremendous, he is little and artificial; the native wildness of nature becomes methodised, and is notched out into banks and slopes: however, his views which compose the greatest part of his works will always do him credit.

I am indeed sensibly touched with the fate of poor Butts, an unfortunate man, who with all his merit never met with any thing but cares and misery, which I may say hunted him into the very grave.10 His cast of genius was very much that of Claude's,11 whom he resembles without any imitation more than anybody that I know of: if Claude's compositions are generally, though not always more successful, he certainly is not in his choice of objects, which was much the same in both, of a serene and beautiful kind between the low familiar style of Lambert and the grandeur of Poussin.12

His being bred in Cork excluded him from many advantages; this he made evident by the surprising change of his manner on his going to Dublin;13 his fancy, which was luxuriant, he confined to its just bounds, his tone of colouring grew more variegated and concordant, and his penciling, which was always spirited, assumed a tenderness, vivacity, and air of nature, which Claude only shares with him, and yet not in every thing, as is visible in the incontestable superiority of Butt's14 figures, cattle, buildings, and herbage, in which it would be a task to find his equal: he hit the true point of penciling, was soft but not woolly, was finished and determined without being hard or edgy. He certainly was not learned in the human figure, in the quadruped, or in architectonial15 works; but this is not visible in his pictures; he has great reaches after taste, and as much reality as we can wish for. It is a good while since I saw a few of his pictures in Dublin; I had but a slight view of them, and was then but poorly qualified to form any judgement. However, I think that what he has done since the change of his manner (with very few exceptions) is alone (if I remember well) wholly worthy of him, and on which his reputation must depend: but had he had the opportunity of making his late observations sooner, or had he lived to have digested them into a system, which as it was, he had nearly compleatedcompleted, it would be almost a desperate undertaking to touch a landscape after him.

A great many of those unmanly disingenuous actions, which his friends had but too much reason to accuse him of, arose more, I am persuaded, from his perplexed situation, than from his dispositions, which upon the least emancipation were of quite another tendency.16 The lengths of virtue and vice depending in great measure on the habit of either, render that condition pitiable, which stands in perpetual need of an artificial conduct, which it is to be feared, habit may in the end substitute in the place of nature. I hope you pardon me for saying so much to you of one, whose merit you know and are a much better judge of. I own, however improper it was, I could not restrain myself from taking some little notice of a character which is dear to me, as a great artist, a fellow citizen, whose merit is our all, and whose example and works were my first guide, and was what enamoured me with the art itself.

We have had our two exhibitions since I wrote to you;17 the pictures that struck me most, were Lady Sarah Bunbury sacrificing to the Graces, and Lady Waldgrave.18 They are some of Mr. Reynolds best works, which is the greatest character they can have. Achilles lamenting over Patroclus, painted by one Hamilton, a Scotchman, at Rome, and sent over.19 I have not escaped the censure of several artists for crying up the merit of this performance, but am perfectly easy whilst I am countenanced in it by men of true taste and discernment. A view of the Villa Madama, near Rome by Wilson;20 the colouring is very masterly; his style of design is generally more grand, more consistent, and more poetical than any other person's amongst us—very pretty views by Richards,21 and others by Marlow—two good landscapes by Barrett—an excellent picture by Zoffani of Garrick's drunken scene in the provoked wife22— an officer relieving a sick soldier by Penny,23 and a fine picture of brood mares by Stubbs:24 his lion and tyger fighting near a dead stag larger than life, his lion killing a horse, a tyger lying in his den large as life, appearing as it were disturbed and listening, which were in the last year's exhibition, are pictures that must rouse and agitate the most inattentive: he is now painting a lion panting and out of breath lying with his paws over a stag he has run down: it is inimitable.25

In Maiden-Lane exhibition, Cavalier Cazali makes a good figure,26 there is an exceeding good landscape by Zuccarelli;27 a love match, a series of pictures in the manner of Hogarth, ingeniously designed by Collet,28 and several very pretty landscapes by Smith.29 Mr. Stewart had some of his views of Athens in;30 these are painted in water-colours, my work at present is copying some of them in oil. I was pressed by some, whose judgements on another occasion I could mention with more modesty, to put in a picture or two, but declined it, as I hope by next year to have less anxiety than I had, and between times a little leisure to paint two or three designs, landscape, and history, which I intend for the exhibition. I shall, Sir, for the present take up no more of your time, and with real love and sincerity will subscribe myself,

Your obliged humble servant,

J.B. James Barry

P. S. Hayman has been torn to rags and the whole society of Spring Garden, of which he is president, on account of a wretched picture of his of the death of Sigismunda.31