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This Irish painter's works are 'among the art world's best kept secrets'

A new book on Cork painter James Barry has just won a major award. The book’s author tells us how Barry’s works are like “something from Dan Brown, only real”.

james barry Source: Cork University Press

THE WORKS OF Cork painter James Barry are the subject of a new book which has just won a prestigious international art literature award.

18th century painter Barry is probably best know for a series of paintings, begun in 1777 when he was 36, known as The Progress of Human Culture which are featured at the Royal Society of Arts in London.

Now a new book on those paintings, James Barry’s Murals at the Royal Society of Arts: Envisioning a New Public Art by American art professor William L Pressly, has won the prestigious William M B Berger Prize for British Art History.

Best kept secret

The murals remain “one of the British art world’s best kept secrets, having attracted little attention from critics or the general public” according to the book’s publishers the Cork University Press.

murals Source: RSA

julie kim The Great Room featuring Barry's murals Source: Julie Kim Photography

Barry insisted upon, and received, complete control over his subject matter, waiving all fees from the Royal Society bar those needed for models and paints, an enormous sacrifice at the time.

The murals were of a highly personal nature, and Barry hid from the Royal Society their true meaning.

Basically, the images depicted are of a very personal, Catholic nature, produced at a time when Catholicism was not exactly in favour in Britain.

Author Pressly contends that had Barry been upfront about what he was doing he would have lost his commission immediately.

“When you consider that someone like Dan Brown (author of mystery potboiler The Da Vinci Code) has made millions ascribing hidden meanings to Leonardo da Vinci’s work, and that’s all hogwash, well James Barry painted to that degree of complexity for real,” he tells us.

The author

71-year old Pressly has studied the work of James Barry for most of his career.

His passion for the work of the Cork painter is plain:

“These murals have great relevance for today – they’re part of a much larger myth. This man had to conceal his message, a very unpopular message, it went totally against what his patrons believed, a truly Catholic view of English history,” he says.

Barry was a forerunner of (William) Blake. Guys thought Blake was crazy, until people dug below the surface.
In Barry’s case we’ve only been scratching the surface for the last 209 years. I think he will come to have as great a reputation as Blake

Source: The RSA/YouTube

Pressly sees the award as a “lovely capstone” to his work.

“I’ve been working on James Barry on and off for my whole career. The Berger award lends acceptance to what I’ve been saying all these years,” he says.

But I’m really happy for Barry too. Here we have these wonderful pieces with unrealised meaning.
His is a reputation that will continue to grow, of that I’m certain.

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The painter

Barry was born in Cork in 1741 and was regarded as a prodigy at the schools he attended there.

Having rejected a career as a sailor, he first came to Dublin at the age of 22. He soon became acquainted with Irish statesman Edmund Burke who became his patron.

Selfportrait_James_Barry_1803 Self portrait of James Barry Source: Wikimedia Commons

Via that patronage he was able to travel through Europe while evolving his art. He returned to London in 1771.

The decision to commission murals to decorate the Great Room at the Royal Society of Arts was taken in 1774, although Barry did not come on board until three years later when he was granted free rein with his choice of subject.

James_Barry_002 King Lear mourns Cordelia's death by James Barry, 1786 Source: Wikimedia Commons

All told the huge murals took him seven years to complete to his satisfaction.

A member of the Royal Academy of Arts, Barry died quite suddenly aged 64 in 1806.

He is buried at St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

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