The Irish William Blake: The Writings of James Barry and the Genre of History Painting
Review: Barry believed that the sole purpose of landscape was to serve as background to the depiction of “significant human action”, which was the central business of a serious painter
James Barry: ‘Self-portrait as Timanthes’. Photograph courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland
The Writings of James Barry and the Genre of History Painting, 1775-1809
The Cork-born painter James Barry bestrides the Irish visual imagination like a colossus. But, despite his magnitude, he managed to remain invisible for almost 200 years. In a practical sense, this is due to the location of his masterpiece, six enormous paintings entitled The Progress of Human Culture, in the Great Room of the Royal Society of Arts in London, which is rarely open to the public.
Few, if any, Irish painters measure up to Barry. The handful of artists he shares the heights with are, in the largest sense of the word, poets. For rational savagery he is comparable to the Jonathan Swift who was, in Denis Donoghue’s phrase, “full of indignation and demand”. For breadth of vision he compares to James Joyce, full of crowds and circumstance. Barry’s London situation is thus an obstacle to understanding his achievement; one doesn’t, after all, have to travel to read Gulliver’s Travels or wander the world to read Ulysses.
Barry was born in 1741 and died in 1806. It was not until 1981 that he was again seen clearly, thanks to a masterly critical biography by William Pressly. Our culture owes Pressly an enduring debt of gratitude, as it does to Tom Dunne at University College Cork, who has illuminated Barry’s cause for many years. Liam Lenihan’s study now adds lustre to their scholarship. (There is also a website, meticulously edited by Tim McLoughlin, which reproduces Barry’s correspondence: texte.ie/barry.)
Boredom may explain Barry’s neglect. By 1815, when the Congress of Vienna settled the balance of Europe for the next 100 years, the cultured classes had had enough of history painting, certainly of the moralising classical variety that Barry promulgated in his writings. It was too stern, too portentous. Far more pleasing, “instead of the Flight into Egypt would be my Flight out of Bath”, as Barry’s friend Thomas Gainsborough put it. “Do you consider, my dear maggoty sir,” he asked, “what a deal of work history pictures require” in comparison to “the little dirty subjects of coal-horses and jackasses and such figures as I fill up with?” For Gainsborough, grand ideas were to be absorbed by the ordinary, in particular by the gospel of the landscape “where half a tree [meets] half a church to make a principal object”.
Nothing by halves or by hints
Barry wasn’t like that. He did nothing by halves or by hints; for him the sole purpose of landscape was to serve as background to the depiction of “significant human action”, which was the central business of a serious painter. He strove, as Ezra Pound said of another failure, “to maintain ‘the sublime’/ In the old sense” and as a consequence was “Wrong from the start” .
Worse, as far as reputation goes, was Barry’s tendency to be batty. Lenihan describes one of the Great Room paintings, Commerce or the Triumph of the Thames, as “a visual catastrophe”. It’s not difficult to see why: Barry has filled the river with seafaring worthies such as Drake, Raleigh and Captain Cooke, but he has also included the musician Dr Charles Burney, who, as Horace Walpole observed, “is not only swimming in his clothes, but playing on a harpsichord”. Actually, it’s not a harpsichord; it’s a keyboard instrument Barry designed for the occasion. Who could not love such a man?