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

James Barry: ‘Self-portrait as Timanthes’. Photograph courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland

Sat, May 10, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
The Writings of James Barry and the Genre of History Painting, 1775-1809


Liam Lenihan


Guideline Price:

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:

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?

Peculiarly unclubbable
The answer is: those who knew him. Barry was a most peculiarly unclubbable Hercules. In character, if not in brains, he was rather like Hyacinth O’Flaherty in Sheridan Le Fanu’s great novel The House by the Churchyard, who said, “I hate a quarrelsome man. If only I knew where to find one I’d go 50 miles out of my way to pull him by the nose.” Barry was such a nuisance that when he was expelled from the Royal Academy, in 1799, he wasn’t allowed to see the charges laid against him.

However, as Lenihan wisely says, Barry “used what antagonised him as a motivation to create”. As a creative thinker he was almost totally self-taught. He read voraciously and wrote with little regard to stylistic restraint or decorum. The intelligence evident in the four books he published is profound but pernickety – his pen can’t keep up with his brain, his sentences accumulate qualifications at breakneck speed, and often a thought that starts out smartly enough ends up bludgeoning itself into incoherence.

Lenihan has a lot of ground to cover. Barry had more or less friendly things to say about Horace, Pliny the Elder, Shakespeare, Edmund Burke, Aristotle, Milton, the Earl of Shaftesbury – the list goes on, but it is not as long as the list of “philosophical prudes” and atheists he disapproved of: Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza, Hobbes, Voltaire and all those who made “pernicious use of alphabetic writing”. Packaging up so many friends and foes in one short book would daunt any scholar, but Lenihan also commits himself to seeing Barry in the light of current theory.

Some of this is provocative of thought. For instance, Paul Ricoeur’s “hermeneutics of suspicion” – a way of reading that uncovers the hidden motives of societies, religions and writers, though rarely to their advantage – helps to clarify Barry’s psychology. But Lenihan does not always avoid what Schopenhauer feared a Hegelian university would turn out to be: “a cuttle-fish creating a cloud of obscurity around itself so that no one sees what it is”.

But his book is, overall, level-headed, incisive and challenging. As far as this reader is concerned, the most stimulating aspect of the challenge relates to Barry’s contemporary relevance. Why, for instance, is it almost unimaginable that a visual artist nowadays would be as well-read as he was? And can those who agree with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen”, and think of art as a merely formal pleasure, really afford to mock Barry and his moral purposes? Ludicrous though he may be betimes, he remains a serious giant, the Irish William Blake.