James Barry

Barry, James, a distinguished artist, was born in Cork, 11th October 1741.

His father was captain of a coaster, and desired that his son should follow his calling; the lad consequently spent part of his youth at sea, displaying greater zeal in chalking sketches on the bulwarks than in learning to be a sailor.

The love of art was a passion with him. On shore he worked incessantly—sitting up whole nights drawing and transcribing pictures from books, while his fancy was fed by the legends of saints and martyrs related to him by his Catholic mother—whose religion he embraced in preference to that of his Protestant father.

In 1763, at the age of twenty-two, he made his way to Dublin, taking with him a number of historical paintings—amongst the rest, “Æneas escaping from Troy,” a “Dead Christ,” “Susanna and Elders,” “Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” “Abraham’s Sacrifice,” and “Saint Patrick baptizing the King of Cashel.”

This last found a place in the exhibition of the Society of Arts at Shaw’s-court, on the south side of Dame-street. It attracted great attention, and the artist was eagerly inquired for. “It is my picture,” exclaimed young Barry, coming forward in his rough country clothes. “Yours?” “Yes, and I can paint a better.”

This painting was subsequently purchased for the House of Commons, Dublin, but was destroyed in the fire that occurred some years afterwards.

The wonderful genius of these paintings attracted the attention of Edmund Burke, then in Dublin. He took Barry to England after he had been a few months in Dublin, and then sent him to Rome at his own expense.

Barry writes to a friend at this period,

“My hopes are grounded in a most unwearied, intense application; I every day centre more and more upon my art; I give myself wholly to it, and, except honour and conscience, am determined to renounce everything else.”

His temper was, however, irritable and imperious—a constant source of annoyance to himself and others. Both at Paris and Rome he became involved in art squabbles. Well would it have been for him if he had taken Burke’s advice:

“Believe me, my dear Barry, that the arms with which the ill dispositions of the world are to be combated, and the qualities by which it is to be reconciled to us, and we reconciled to it, are moderation, gentleness, and a little indulgence to others, and a great deal of distrust of ourselves, which are not qualities of a mean spirit, as some may probably think them, but virtues of a great and noble kind.”

While abroad he does not appear to have painted much, but rather to have spent his time in studying the great masterpieces.

He drew from the antique by means of a patent delineator, not aiming to make academic drawings, but a sort of diagrams, to which he might at all times refer as a guide and authority. He appears to have been deficient in colouring.

On his election as member of the Clementine Academy at Bologna, he presented to that institution his picture of “Philoctetes in the Isle of Lemnos.”

After five years’ residence in Rome, he returned to England, burning to distinguish himself, and set to work at two pictures—“Venus rising from the Waves,” and “Jupiter and Juno,” which, like most of his paintings, were of a colossal size. The first proved worthy of his great reputation.

He would in no degree adapt himself to the taste of the public, and his whole life was a struggle, through suffering and poverty, to uphold principles of art which he believed to be correct, quite careless of monetary success.

His income was never more than £60 or £70 a-year, and he was often assisted by Burke, although at times Barry’s petulance, arrogance, and pride suspended all personal intercourse between them.

He joined Reynolds and other artists in offering to decorate St. Paul’s cathedral with religious paintings gratuitously—an offer which, unfortunately, was not accepted.

In 1775 he refuted continental strictures on British genius in his Inquiry into the Real and Imaginary Obstructions to the Acquisition of the Arts in England.

For seven years—during which he supported himself by the occasional sale of drawings made chiefly in the evenings—he occupied himself in adorning gratuitously the walls of the Institution for the Encouragement of Arts, at the Adelphi, London, with six colossal paintings, and his most indisputable title to fame may rest on one of these—“The Victors at Olympia.”

When Canova was in London, he declared that had he known of the existence of such a work, he would have made the voyage to England solely for the purpose of seeing it.

As the powers of his mind declined, his natural irritability increased. He became involved in disputes with the Royal Academy, which ended in his expulsion, in March 1799, from the Professorship of Painting, a post he had held since 1782.

Subsequently the sum of £1,000 was subscribed, and an annuity was purchased, which, however, he did not live to enjoy.

On the evening of 6th February 1806, he was seized with an attack of pleuritic fever, and died on the 22nd, aged 64.

Sir Robert Peel generously advanced £200 for his funeral, and after the body had lain in state for a few days at the Adelphi, amid his great masterpieces, it was interred in St. Paul’s, near to his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Barry was a staunch imperialist. The Act of Union especially excited his enthusiasm; and he wrote to Pitt suggesting an allegorical painting in honour of what he styled a “glorious achievement, and the hero by whom it was achieved. Surely there never was, nor could be a holy union more pregnant with felicity and blessings of every kind, and made up of more naturally cordial and coalescing materials, than that which you have thus happily effected.”

“The most prominent feature in Barry’s character was his love for art, and for the acquisition of all knowledge connected with it.”

His language was coarse and unpolished, and his person slovenly.

“Strangers would stare when they saw him in company, as if a beggar had been picked up and brought in. Yet his appearance was forgot the moment he began to discourse on any subject.”

An ardent Catholic, he formed one of the brilliant circle that gathered around Johnson and Burke. The former remarked of one of his paintings,

“Whatever the hand may have done, the mind has done its part. There is a grasp of mind there which you will find nowhere else.”

Instances are given in H. Crabbe Robinson’s Diary of his being subject at times to strong mental delusions.

He published several works, all now collected in one series, and appended to his Life.

Some notes on his portraits will be found in Notes and Queries, 4th Series.

There is an interesting likeness in Walker’s Magazine for 1806.


24. Barry, James, R.A., his Life and Writings. 2 vols. London, 1809.

196. Irishmen, Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished, Rev. James Wills, D.D. 6 vols. or 12 parts. Dublin, 1840–’7.

254. Notes and Queries. London, 1850–’78.
O’Callaghan, John C., see No. 186.

296. Robinson, Henry Crabb; Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence: Thomas Sadler. London, 1869.

338. Walker’s Hibernian Magazine. Dublin, 1771–1811.
Walker, Joseph C, see Nos. 20, 108.