James Barry RA (1741 - 1806)

RA Collection: People and Organisations

James Barry was raised in Cork, Ireland, and moved to Dublin at the age of twenty-two. There his talent was quickly acknowledged: his early painting The Baptism of the King of Cashel by St Patrick was purchased for the Irish House of Commons and he attracted the support of the politician and writer Edmund Burke. Burke arranged for Barry to work for the painter and architect James ‘Athenian’ Stuart in London and then financed Barry’s lengthy continental tour (1765-70), most of which was spent in Rome alongside artists including Joseph Nollekens and Alexander Runciman.

Barry’s experience in Rome helped him to formulate his goal as an artist: to revive the principles of classical art and in doing so to reform modern culture. The tension between these lofty artistic and civic ideals and the structure of the Georgian art world was to remain problematic throughout his career. This situation was further complicated by Barry’s identity as a Roman Catholic with close ties to political radicals.

The years following his return to London were the most productive of Barry’s career. He was embraced by the Royal Academy, where he exhibited numerous pictures between 1771 and 1776. Barry became an Associate in 1772 and a full Member the following year. Barry then began work on a series of six pictures for the Great Room of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, in London, depicting The Progress of Human Culture (1777-84). This commission resulted in Barry’s masterpiece – which can still be seen in situ – but required him to live austerely for several years at a time when leading portraitists were becoming wealthy from their work. Other ambitious schemes, such as one to illustrate John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, came to nothing.

In 1782 Barry was elected as Professor of Painting at the RA, and he used his lectures, together with a number of publications, to set out his vision of the Grand Style in history painting. He also used his lectures and writings to criticise the policies of the Academy, and his relationship with the RA deteriorated to the extent that Barry claimed that fellow Academicians instigated the burglary of his house in 1794. Eventually, in 1799, Barry became the first of only two Academicians ever to have been expelled. Barry’s Diploma work Medea making her Incantation after the Murder of her Children was probably returned to Barry at this time, although its present whereabouts are unknown.

Barry’s output was small, in the latter part of his life he completed only four major history paintings and these did not sell in his lifetime. In his final years the artist was impoverished and living in squalid conditions, alienated by the art world and his attempt to establish history painting in Britain having foundered. Nevertheless, his artistic achievements were held in high regard and he was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral next to the first President of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds.


Royal Academician

Born: 11 October 1741 in Cork

Died: 22 February 1806

Nationality: Irish

Elected ARA: 2 November 1772

Elected RA: 9 February 1773

Professor of Painting: 1782 - 1799

Expelled: 15 Apr 1799

Gender: Male

Preferred media: Painting, Printmaking, and Etching

Works by James Barry in the RA Collection

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Works after James Barry in the RA Collection

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Works associated with James Barry in the RA Collection

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Associated books

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Associated archives

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