James Barry’s Murals at the Royal Society of Arts review: to the Grand Manor born

Barry’s six murals in the London RSA are perhaps the most important cycle of history paintings in Britain

Sat, Jan 24, 2015, 13:37


Book Title:
James Barry’s Murals at the Royal Society of Arts – Envisioning A New Public Art


William L. Pressly

Cork University Press

Guideline Price:

This is a great book. It does more than illuminate the past; it shines a light on our present way of thinking, and not just about culture. At the very least, anyone with an eye will want to look at it – it’s a beautiful object. The illustrations will surprise many into wondering why it is they are seeing Cork-born James Barry’s masterpieces for the first time.

Part of the explanation is practical: the works are in the Great Room of the Royal Society of Arts in London and not easily accessible to the public. An increased demand for access, though it might create a problem for the RSA, would be a sign that William L Pressly’s book has had an influence beyond the academy.

It is hard to imagine, for example, how any intelligent young artist starting out would not be fired up by the ambition of both the book and its subject: the six murals titled “A Series of Pictures on Human Culture”, which Barry painted between 1777 and 1784. In those years he lived on four pence a day. Nor did he get rich afterwards: two exhibitions of the work earned him £503, a paltry sum.

It is impossible to describe in this space the complexity of the paintings. Even Pressly, with 396 pages at his disposal, leaves some doors half-opened. More remains to be said, for instance, about Barry’s portrait of his patron and fellow Corkman Edmund Burke, a relationship that became tragic as Barry moved to the radical left.

Less seriously, more might have been said of Barry’s depiction of the wonderfully named Bishop Grouthead and the “juniper” letter that grumpy cleric sent to the Pope in the 16th century. All in all, one is reminded of the intricacies of Joyce’s Ulysses. Beneath the surface, meanings seethe.

Superficially the paintings are classical. The first shows Orpheus teaching the barbaric Greeks the benefits of civilisation. The second is a festival of thanksgiving for the harvest of a civilised life and the third a procession honouring the victors at the Olympic Games.

Two paintings engage with contemporary subjects: one celebrates England’s commerce but criticises it, particularly its cruelty to women; the other glorifies a prize-giving ceremony at the Society of Arts. The final painting depicts Elysium and Tartarus, though heaven and hell would be more appropriate terms – all six murals are essentially Christian parables.

Pressly’s analyses of the wider purposes of Barry’s art are bound to be controversial. Context is important here. The art history discipline has grown increasingly powerful in contemporary culture, a fact borne out by the millions who flock to museums worldwide. Curators have become dictators of public taste at worst and benign directors of it at best. What they think matters.

It also matters that the biggest investment our Government will make during its lifetime is an artistic one – but perhaps spending €4 billion on social housing has nothing to do with the art of architecture.

Barry would burst a gasket if he thought that was true. He insisted that all the arts, and the sciences, are essential to society. Geniuses such as Raphael and Michelangelo embodied the essence of a good life. Barry believed that all artists should aspire to the same heights.

Fate deserved

Many critics regard such aspirations as absurd. As far as they are concerned, the fact that the RSA paintings were ignored by historians for more than 200 years was a fate richly deserved. More recently, ever since Pressly’s 1981 biography, The Life and Art of James Barry, revived interest in the artist, the murals have been derided as “graceless bombast” (Julian Bell) and “a lamentable mishmash” (Simon Schama).

Fortunately for Pressly, and thanks to the Cork University Press, readers now have dazzling evidence to the contrary. How can the graceless be so full of grace, the mishmash so magnificent?

When Barry made prints of the paintings, he was obliged to squeeze the proportions, a reduction that, as it condensed, expanded the old work to make a new one. Six paintings produced 17 prints. Barry, meanwhile, continued to make additions to the murals. And he wrote copious commentaries on what he had done and what he thought the world should do about it.

Barry meant the whole world. He didn’t think small. He was a syncretist; that is to say, he intended his art to teach the unity of all religions and cultures. This is, undoubtedly, a bit Irish. And yet what Barry does with the narrative image in the Great Room is no less ambitious than what James Joyce does with the stream of consciousness in Ulysses.

Pressly reveals a peculiar dynamism in the murals: a progression from Greece via Rome towards Ireland. The west is best and the best of the west is us – or could be. The Irish can save the English. For that reason Barry, who once painted the shamrock red, supported the 1801 Act of Union, and was bitterly disappointed by what he saw of the outcome before his death in 1806.

All the same, ugly and famine-stricken though our history has been, Barry’s desire for unity has survived the violence done to it. Though it often seems that the only accurate word in the Good Friday Agreement is the name of the day, it is not impossible it will prove to be a stepping stone towards another, even closer act of union.

In Ulysses, Malachi Mulligan says that he and Stephen Dedalus should “hellenise the island”. Joyce did that task by following Homer comically. Barry did something similar, though more dourly, in the Great Room. But he, like Dante, was guided by Virgil, or to be precise the pagan Virgil, “who was a Christian, even without Christ”.

For Barry, the Attic was Roman Catholic. Moreover, although he loved England, he hated its Protestant history: to him, Henry VIII was a villain and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, was a fiend. Barry’s papist bigotry was foolhardy: on 7 June 1780, while he was painting the Great Room, the army was mobilised and 285 anti-Catholic rioters were shot dead in London.

In this frantic atmosphere, it is not surprising that Barry packaged his credo in code. In decoding the harvest thanksgiving painting, for example, Pressly finds Barry connecting the miracle of the mass to the secret rituals of the Greeks: for the artist, the Eucharist and the Eleusinian Mysteries spring from the same divine source and can be known only by the few, though tasted by the many.

Barry’s character was elitist, naturally Yeatsian, “high and solitary and most stern”, and he was prone, as such people are, to paranoia. He suspected members of the RSA of burgling his house, and he feared “assassination” (ordinary murder wasn’t good enough for him).

These fears can be seen generalised throughout the Great Room murals: almost every mouth is clamped shut in expectation; every gaze is wary; the very air is anxious. Barry’s sexuality, like that of his friend Henry Fuseli, was also fearful, though tender and pathetic.

Tenderness and pathos

But tenderness and pathos can be discerned in the whole work. It was made in order that the present might learn from the ideal past, a time when, as Barry says, “those who lived near together began to cultivate a Friendship, and agreed not to hurt or injure one another”. Is there not another Joycean echo here, this time of Leopold Bloom?

Writing on Barry’s self-portrait in the National Gallery of Ireland in the anthology Lines of Visions – Irish Writers On Art, Thomas McCarthy, one of an increasing band of poets who have come under Barry’s influence, described attending the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the artist’s bicentenary in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

On that occasion, William Pressly told the gathering that “great art forces us to grapple with content, rather than merely look and say ‘oh’ and move on”. But McCarthy prefers Barry’s “yearning and human wariness” to his “Roman Catholic propaganda”.

The emotions are, surely, the proper starting place for understanding the artist, and not a bad place to end either. But I suspect that when McCarthy reads this book, he will see that it allows Barry’s religion, though rationally wrong, to be at once lower-case catholic and, in George Santayana’s words, “a symbolic representation of a moral reality”.

Brian Lynch’s most recent novel is The Woman Not the Name