James Barry’s Murals at the Royal Society of Arts: Envisioning a New Public Art
By William L Pressly
Cork University Press, €49 £40 HB, 384 pages
The premise of William Pressly’s book on the London murals of Irish-born artist James Barry has the ring of a mystery thriller about it. In chapters that expound on hidden messages, subtexts, rites of passage, concealed intentions and Barry’s “carefully crafted persona”, Pressly makes the claim that the artist’s most significant work has been, for 230 years, entirely misread and misinterpreted. “No other major series of paintings in a venue accessible to the public has been as misunderstood as this one,” he writes, while admitting his reading “has proven controversial.”
Barry was 35 in 1777 when he began his Series of Pictures on Human Nature for the Great Room of the Society of Arts (later the Royal Society of Arts). Commissioned to produce a depiction of “universal truths” for moral instruction, Pressly argues that Barry went further, surreptitiously crafting instead “an initiation into a ‘secret wisdom’ that was intended utterly to transform his audience.” The murals’ meaning was in fact “crypto-Catholic”. Part two of the book is called The Hidden Agenda. It’s heady stuff. Unfortunately it’s not the kind of book to curl up with in bed. This is a three kilogram, large format, hard back more suitable for table top perusing. It’s laden with excruciating detail, but its content is ultimately gripping.
Pressly claims the true meaning of Barry’s series has remained secret because “prevailing extremes of anti-Catholic prejudice, would have led to the murals’ destruction.” “Knowledge of this deeper interpretive level died with the artist and his confidants,” he writes, “but the murals themselves lived on.” It is to this enduring evidence Pressly turns to make his case.
Barry is an art historian’s ideal subject: an ambitious Irishman in England, unfairly forgotten. This is Pressly’s third major publication on Barry and the culmination of more than a decade of research. Aided by abundant, high quality, colour illustrations, Pressly elaborates on every aspect of what can be seen in the paintings. No element goes un-noted, unanalysed or unexplained.
The mural series consists of six paintings, 361cm high and either 462cm wide or in the case of two a remarkable 1280cm long. Together they form an almost continuous band around the walls of the room, depicting Greek civilisation, aspects of contemporary England and finally the elect in Elysium (for which read Heaven) and the damned in Tartarus (that is, Hell).
Barry was born in Cork (to a Catholic mother and a Protestant father) in 1741. He studied in Dublin, London, Paris and Rome before returning to London in 1771. With his star on the rise, he was made a full member of the Royal Academy just two years later. Yet a disappointing 6,541 people paid to see the murals on their first showing in 1783 and as Pressly writes, “the critical response was approving but under-whelming.”
A newspaper critic accused him of copying well-known portraits of subjects including Sir Isaac Newton, Locke and Pope “servilely from the frontispieces of books”; a fair and accurate complaint. Remarkably, the society had no influence on the content of the murals. It paid only expenses “for canvas, colours and models.” William Blake wrote that Barry told him “while he did that work – he lived on bread and apples.”
Pressly claims the murals are “the most important series of history paintings in Great Britain.” He says Barry believed this genre – which draws on ‘universal sources’ such as the Bible, classical mythology and allegorical symbols to teach lessons such as virtue – “best expressed the mind of God.” He is especially good on the ties between Barry and the work of his contemporary Blake, whom he argues was “strongly indebted to the Irish artist’s example.” He speaks of “the likelihood of a close personal relationship” between the two and notes one authority on Blake as having claimed Barry “was one of Blake’s idols”.
Pressly argues that Barry “intended his murals as an initiation into sacred mysteries…religious revelation.” He says “Catholic Ireland features prominently in defining… values for which the British should strive.” Yet he claims the artist was torn between revealing and concealing this inflammatory message. “By making the path to understanding long and arduous, his hope was that the process of discovery itself would eventually convince those who persevered.” Pressly is now one such initiate.
As recently as 2006, Julian Bell wrote dismissively of the murals’ “graceless bombast”. Simon Schama, in 1995, accused Barry of producing “a lamentable mishmash of allegory, history and fluvial landscape that topples over into unintended comedy.” Pressly notes theses criticisms and admits that without their “second, deeper meaning” Barry’s murals offer “what is otherwise a decidedly disjointed narrative.”
He claims Barry’s imagery “relies on the tradition that purports to link Moses to Orpheus to Plato to Neoplatonism in a chain that transmits God’s own message, with Barry himself being the latest in this long line of truth tellers.” He argues that the murals are “intended to be difficult” as their purpose is to reward patient attention, which Pressly has given them. The point is well argued, but to contemporary readers, and viewers, Barry is more likely to appear as the star of a complicated, self-composed narrative driven by his own overblown sense of self-importance.
Pressly describes him as an autodidact, opinionated, obstinate, widely read, paranoid, self-aggrandising and inflexible. He was prone to violence and rage. The artist’s vision of himself as Timanthes, the oil painting of which is in the National Gallery of Ireland, appears on the left hand side of one of the 42 foot compositions. Pressly notes, “With feigned humility, his self-portrait is on a slightly smaller scale than the other figures.” It may have been added at a later date, as Barry continued to alter series long after its initial completion.
This is not a book for the casual reader with a passing interest in its subject. Pressly’s own overblown claim is that it “will reveal Barry’s series as an epic pilgrimage in which the viewer is led into a profound, transforming experience.” It doesn’t do quite that, but it argues its point comprehensively, definitively even.
Barry wished to inspire his audience to patriotism, glory and virtue, but lofty intentions are no guaranteed of success. His murals are overcrowded, overworked and over thought. He struggled to include portraits of known individuals convincingly. He was also a great man for blowing his own trumpet.
Pressly writes that Barry’s series was more “tepidly” admired than understood. He believes Barry’s work contains “a majestic, overarching vision that has never been addressed”, because Barry was at pains to conceal it. He claims the whole series “belongs among the great monuments of the Romantic imagination.” Yet the fact that Barry continued to make updates, edits and amendments, for years after their completion, tends not to point towards artistic genius. It implies that he too knew the work failed on various levels and that he was always trying to improve it by remedying them.
It’s impossible to judge the murals without seeing them in person. Pressly would be the first to encourage readers to do so. What ultimately impresses is the magnitude of Barry’s ambition. The monumentality of Pressly’s undertaking here almost matches it. He writes, somewhat twee-ly, “If a mural series is created in the heart of London and no one understands it, has it really been seen?” It may matter to more whether the paintings are any good, but this is a fair argument, from the art historian’s point of view, and despite its enormous claims, and endless detail, Pressly’s book is neither bombastic nor confused – criticisms that have often been levelled at Barry’s murals. What no book can ever convey, notwithstanding the physical impressiveness of this one, is the murals’ scale, but for those who have never been in the Royal Society’s Great Room, Pressly’s book is surely the next best thing. For those who have, it’s an indispensable companion to any potential reading of their message.
A version of this review was first published in The Sunday Times Ireland, Culture section on 22 February 2015.