Cork City

Famous Artist: James Barry

James Barry was born on October 11th 1741 in a cottage in Water Lane (now Seminary Road) one of the many roads that had sprung up on the hills skirting the northern parts of Cork city. He studied under the artist John Butts (1728-1765) who was also tutor to another great Cork artist, Nathaniel Grogan (1740-1807). Very few works by Butts himself are known, although The View of Cork from Audley Place, which hangs in the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery in Cork and has long been attributed to Grogan, may indeed be Butt’s work. James Barry’s first major success in Cork was said to have been a signboard with Neptune on one side and the Ship of War of the same name on the other side, which he had painted for the public house owned by his father on Cold Harbour Quay. The only drawing known to have survived from Barry’s Cork is a pen and ink study of a landscape signed and dated May 1762. As Barry’s ambition was to be a history painter before he left Cork he had completed Aeneas Escaping with his Family from the Flames of Troy, A Dead Christ, Susannah and the Elders, Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Abraham’s Sacrifice.

In 1763, 22 year old Barry left Cork for Dublin to study with Jacob Ennis at the Drawing Schools of the Dublin society. He carried with him an example of his painting skills, The Baptism of the King of Cashel by Saint Patrick, which he submitted to an exhibition of paintings at the Dublin Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. The work attracted great interest and three parliamentarians bought it for the British House of Commons. It was thought to have been destroyed in a fire there in 1792. Intriguingly, a canvas which for many years had been at Terenure College, Dublin, is almost certainly the assumed lost picture and it now hangs in the national Gallery of Ireland. In Dublin, Barry met another man who was to have a major influence on his life, Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke. Burke’s essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757, argued that pictures or texts that are not perfectly clear can be more interesting to the human imagination than those that are clearly grasped. It was a philosophy that clearly influenced Barry. It was Burke who introduced Barry to the famous painter Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy in London in 1764.

From 1765 to 1771, Barry travelled the Continent, encouraged in his work by Reynolds and financed by Burke. His ambition was now clear- to be a great history painter, in the footsteps of great artists such as Poussin. Barry saw himself as heir to a long tradition beginning with the Italian Renaissance.

The strong moral, social structures of Barry’s paintings reveal him to be one of the great 18th century neo-classical artists, a genre which went back to the style of ancient Greece and Rome. Returning to London in 1771, Barry turned to illustrating and printmaking to support himself. Periodically he exhibited works at the Royal Academy, becoming a member in 1773 and the Professor of Painting in 1782. His cycle of history paintings at the Society of Arts was unveiled in 1783 to great acclaim.

In 1775 Barry published a book,’ An Inquiry into the Real and Imaginary Obstructions to the Acquisition of the Arts in England’, where he tried to promote the art of history painting. In 1776 he painted Ulysses and Polyphemus, a major work which was a collection of history, autobiography and classical mythology. On one level it is a portrait of Barry and Edmund Burke. On another it shows the classical hero Ulysses and a companion disguised as sheep in order to escape from the cave of the blind giant Polyphemus. . It shows the politician Burke, warning the artist about his outspoken comments on British government and politics, which were to cause problems for the artist’s career and led to him being expelled from the Royal Academy, still the only man to have suffered such an indignity. Between 1783 and his death, Barry was to complete four major history paintings, although none sold during his lifetime. He fell ill in 1803 and Sir Robert Peel and the Society of Artists raised an annuity for him in 1805. He died in 1806 and was buried in the crypt of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London.

William Blake wrote soon after his Barry’s death: “Obedience to the will of the monopolist is call’d virtue, and the really industrious, virtuous and independent Barry is driven out to make room for a pack of idle sycophants with whitlows on their fingers.”

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