James Barry, Irish painter best remembered for his six-part series of paintings entitled The Progress of Human Culture in the Great Room of the Royal Society of Arts in London, is born in Water Lane (now Seminary Road) on the northside of Cork, County Cork on October 11, 1741.
Barry first studies painting under local artist John Butts. At the schools in Cork to which he is sent he is regarded as a child prodigy. About the age of seventeen he first attempts oil painting, and between that and the age of twenty-two, when he first goes to Dublin, he produces several large paintings.
The painting that first brings him into public notice, and gains him the acquaintance and patronage of Edmund Burke, is founded on an old tradition of the landing of Saint Patrick on the sea-coast of Cashel, although Cashel is an inland town far from the sea, and of the conversion and Baptism of the King of Cashel. It is exhibited in London in 1762 or 1763 and rediscovered in the 1980s in unexhibitable condition.
In late 1765 Barry goes to Paris, then to Rome, where he remains upwards of three years, from Rome to Florence and Bologna, and thence home through Venice. He paints two pictures while abroad, an Adam and Eve and a Philoctetes.
Soon after his return to England in 1771 Barry produces his painting of Venus, which is compared to the Triumph of Galatea of Raphael, the Venus of Urbino of Titian and the Venus de’ Medici. In 1773 he exhibits his Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida. His Death of General Wolfe, in which the British and French soldiers are represented in very primitive costumes, is considered as a falling-off from his great style of art.
In 1773 Barry publishes An Inquiry into the real and imaginary Obstructions to the Acquisition of the Arts in England, vindicating the capacity of the English for the fine arts and tracing their slow progress to the Reformation, to political and civil dissensions, and lastly to the general direction of the public mind to mechanics, manufactures and commerce.
In 1774 a proposal is made through Valentine Green to several artists to ornament the Great Room of the Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (now the Royal Society of Arts), in London’s Adelphi Theatre, with historical and allegorical paintings. This proposal is rejected at the time. In 1777 Barry makes an offer, which is accepted, to paint the whole on condition that he is allowed the choice of his subjects, and that he is paid by the society the costs of canvas, paints and models. He finishes the series of paintings after seven years to the satisfaction of the members of the society. He regularly returns to the series for more than a decade, making changes and inserting new features. The series of six paintings, The progress of human knowledge and culture, has been described by critic Andrew Graham-Dixon as “Britain’s late, great answer to the Sistine Chapel.”
Soon after his return from the continent Barry is chosen a member of the Royal Academy of Arts. In 1782 he is appointed professor of painting in the room of Edward Penny with a salary of £30 a year. In 1799 he is expelled from the Academy soon after the appearance of his Letter to the Society of Dilettanti, an eccentric publication, full of enthusiasm for his art and at the same time of contempt for the living professors of it. He remains the only academician ever to be expelled by the Academy until Brendan Neiland in July 2004.
After the loss of his salary, a subscription is set on foot by the Earl of Buchan to relieve Barry from his difficulties, and to settle him in a larger house to finish his painting of Pandora. The subscription amounts to £1000, with which an annuity is bought, but on February 6, 1806 he is seized with illness and dies on February 22. His remains are interred in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London on March 4, 1806.
(Pictured: James Barry, Self-portrait, 1803, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.)