« AnteriorContinuar »
ART. II.-BARRY, THE HISTORICAL PAINTER.
DURING the summer of the year 1848 the paintings and sketches of William Mulready were exhibited in the rooms of the Society of Arts, and as we gazed upon the walls whereon James Barry portrayed those noble conceptions of his glorious genius-devoting six years to the labor of love, dressed in poor, mean clothes, and supporting life upon a beggar's food— as we saw the pictures of the living painter hanging beneath those of the greater dead, even whilst proud of our two fellow-countrymen, we thought bitterly of the fate of each, and fancied that mediocrity, with its skipping smartness, is a better gift than genius with its leviathan, but sometimes erratic sweep. Men have gone down, broken in heart and blasted in reputation, to the drunkard's grave-men who might have been kings of minds, witching the nation by the spell of fancy, or ruling it by the sceptre of thought, have passed from the world with fame unmade, bartering the glory of the future for a wanton's smile-the soul of genius soaring to the skies, yet restrained by the soft white arm of a woman, more binding than chains, more firm than iron-men have squandered existence round the gambler's board, and the mind which might have been but second to Newton's, has been wasted in calculations upon the rolling of a die, or the turning of a cardyet all those minds were fraught with genius, glowing with fancy, gleaming with intelligence, and their loss is the loss of the world,
"Who shall tell what schemes majestic
Perish in the active brain ?
Ne'er to be restored again ?"
Too truly, the loss is ours; and, amongst all the bright intelligences clouded by death, there is not one whose powers were so completely squandered as those of James Barrysquandered through the arrogance of his own genius. It has been said that the glutton "digs his grave with his teeth;" as truly might it be written that Barry murdered his genius by his pride. Better for him had the god been weaker in his nature; better for him if, like Smollett's Pallet, he had "strutted in a gay summer dress of the Parisian cut, with a bag to his own gray hair, and a red feather in his hat:" thereby he would have escaped that spirit of emulation, fermenting
into envy, which Saint Cyprian calls "a moth of the soul, a consumption, to make another man's happiness his misery, to torture, crucify, and execute himself, to eat his own heart,"
James Barry was born in the city of Cork, on the eleventh day of October, 1741. His mother, Juliana O'Reardon, was of good, but poor, stock, and his father, John Barry, is stated to have been a scion of the Barrymore family. Time and its changes had, however, dimmed the ancient lustre of their fortunes, and when John Barry married Juliana O'Reardon, he was only the poor commander of a small coasting vessel, in which occupation he continued till the period of his death. He was a plain man, with few hopes and no ambitions, and at the time when James was old enough to bear the buffeting of the winds, he was brought on board the little vessel, and was made to understand that in her, and by her, he was to live and earn his bread. Thus, at the outset of life, he formed another instance of that strange fate of genius-so often designed for a pursuit in life the opposite to that for which it has been ordained by heaven. Thus Barry, the ship-boy, becomes the painter of Pandora, the decorator of the assembly house of the Society of Arts. Giovanni Cimabue, named for the church, becomes the "Father of Modern Painting,”—one in youth a goat-herd becomes, in age, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, at a time when kings were the vassals of the Pope, and thrones but foot-stools to the Papal chair. Richard Arkwright, the Preston barber, becomes the great benefactor of commerce, and a millionaire amongst a race of merchant princes. John Liston fancies himself made for tragedy, and delights the world as a comedian; and Charles Mathews, who, with his father, "sat under" George Whitfield, and William Huntingdon, "The Sinner Saved," becomes the Momus of his age, and the creator of Maw-worm. With all these, however hampered by circumstances, the strong bent of fancy would force its own way, so Barry, though the ship-boy, was still the painter, and when decks should be swept, or cabins should be cared, he was found chalking figures upon the cuddy top, or designing flower patterns by the hatchway. His father, as a matter of course, despised these tastes, and lamented their strong development; but in James Barry, as in Benjamin West, the
Mathews was the first actor who played Maw-worm as we now have it; he wrote the "I'll wear a spencer" speech. See his Memoirs, Vol. II., p. 108.
spirit of the painter was strong in the soul, and it would burst forth, however roughly smothered.
Barry's father found that all attempts to make the boy a sailor were vain, and after he had twice run away from the vessel and its, to him, revolting duties, he was sent back to Cork, and under the care of his mother was permitted, although his father occasionally grumbled his disgust, to follow the natural course of his artistic fancy. His chief store of learning was acquired after he had been suffered to abandon the sea-faring life selected for him by his father. He was remarkable at school for his solitary habits, for his studious tastes, and for his constant practice of drawing and sketching whenever he could steal a few minutes from his tasks. Thus the time passed, and when he had reached his seventeenth year he painted very correctly, although uninstructed by a master, and unaided by a model. About the year 1759 he received some slight assistance in his art from a teacher, and between this period, and the year 1763, he painted, in oils, A Dead Christ-Susanna and the Elders-Eneas Escaping from the Burning of Troy-Abraham's Sacrifice and Daniel in the Lions' Den. These were finished pictures, but his sketches were innumerable. From childhood he had been a painter, and had he lived in a remote country he would, like Benjamin West, have plundered his mother's blue bag for colors, and like him would have plucked the cat's tail bare of hair for brushes. All his money he expended in buying candles; these the servants sometimes stole from him, and at length, vexed by their interference with his solitary night studies, he locked his bed-room door, and refused to permit them to enter. He seldom slept in his bed, and always made it himself, as his chief anxiety was, that it might be as hard as possible; thus early accustoming himself to these habits of solitude and meditation, relieved by efforts after what he considered perfection in painting, which, in later life, distinguished him. He could, however, be gay and joyous as other youths when the fancy seized him, and, at this period, he was not unlike Beattie's Edwin,
"Silent when glad; affectionate, though shy;
The neighbours stared and sigh'd, yet blessed the lad:
Barry was, in heart and soul, an artist, and might have apostrophized Painting in Wordsworth's lines
"There was a youth whom I had loved so long,
But from this great love there sprung up the ardor and passion which spur men on to aim at greatness; which make youth, in pursuit of fame, turn old while life is young; which dim the bright flashing eyes; which raise the soul to a fancied throne, more proud than monarch ever pressed, and which in want and poverty find nothing for repining, dwelling ever in the golden, sunny visions of the glowing future.
Thus supported by the conviction of his own merit, Barry, in the year 1763, resolved to try his fortune in the world, and came to Dublin, bringing with him the pictures above mentioned, and also one which he prized still more highly-The Baptism of the King of Cashel. These were all his valuables, painted at odd hours of day, and through the long watches of the night, by the light of candle ends bought or stolen from his mother. He selected the year 1763 as that in which he should first make his appearance in Dublin, because the Society for Improving Husbandry, Manufactures, and other Useful Arts,* had announced their intention of then holding an exhibition of paintings, and had invited the co-operation of the native artists. Barry determined that his picture of Saint Patrick Baptizing the King of Cashel should introduce him to the notice of the public, and he accordingly sent in the work, which fortunately pleased the committee, and it was hung in an advantageous position. The subject selected was a happy one, and suggested by a story told in Keating's History of Ireland. The King is stated to have been anxious for baptism after having heard a sermon from Saint Patrick, who ordered water to be brought, and whilst pouring it upon the head of the monarch, the Saint unintentionally allowed the pointed end of his crosier to fall upon the foot of the royal convert, and the weight of the crosier forced it through the flesh. The guards rush forward to seize the supposed offender, and this is the
* For an account of this, and the earlier Philosophical Society, from which the present Royal Dublin Society has sprung, see IRISH QUARTERLY REVIEW, VOL. II. pp. 503-514,
point selected by Barry for his subject-the king appears entirely unconscious of pain, the saint seems lost in the contemplation of the great mystery he is performing-one of the guards is advancing with upraised axe to slay the saint, but is held back by some others of the band; and the women kneel, half in horror, half in awe, and as the blood flows from the royal foot, perceiving the unchanged features of king and saint, they fancy the wound some painful, but necessary part of the ceremony.
The picture attracted considerable notice, and, day after day, there might be seen, as he described himself—" a pock-pitted, hard-featured little fellow," prowling amongst the crowd who stood before the painting, and listening with a yearning, eager, hungry ear to the praises bestowed upon the work, designed in poverty, and painted with trembling anxiety.
He was, all through his life, highly sensitive of praise; and in youth, with his quick fancy, and panting love of fame, it was natural that he should feel great elation at the laudations which his picture so justly drew from the spectators. One day, during the exhibition, these praises were so warm and so flattering, that in a moment of transport, upon some person in the crowd around the work, saying, "Who can be the painter ?" Barry exclaimed, "I am. The on-lookers laughed, and jeered, and would not believe him, then the reaction of feeling became so powerful and bitter in his breast, that, bursting into tears, he rushed from the room.*
Barry brought with him to Dublin a letter of introduction to Edmund Burke, who was then residing here, and acting as the secretary of William Gerard Hamilton, from Joseph Fenn Sleigh, a physician in Cork, who had been a steady and judicious friend to the young artist. Burke was pleased with the young man, he admired his pictures, and judged rightly of his ability. Through his influence Barry was received as a pupil of the Drawing School of the Society at whose exhibition his
In the European Magazine for April, 1806- in the long sketch of Barry's life prefixed to the collected edition of his works (1809), and, strangest of all, in the late edition of Bryan's Dictionary of Painters, this picture is absurdly called St. Patrick Baptizing the King, on his arrival at the sea coast of Cashel. Most of our reader must be aware that Cashel is forty miles from the sea.