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James Barry

(1741 Cork – 1806 London)

Reserved Knowledge. Etching and engraving. 72.7 x 47.5 cm. 1795. Pressly 29 II (of III).

The first historical paintings the young James Barry made attracted the attention of the Irish-British writer and statesman, Edmund Burke. In 1764, Burke invited the up-and-coming artist to London, where he introduced him to Joshua Reynolds and Gilbert Stuart and subsequently enabled him to study for several years in Rome. Following his return to London, Barry exhibited two paintings on biblical and mythological themes in the Royal Academy in 1771 and 1772, the response to which was largely negative. Although this lack of artistic recognition meant that no commissions came his way for quite some time, he was nonetheless admitted to the Academy in 1773. In 1775, he published An Inquiry Into the Real and Imaginary Obstructions to the Acquisition of the Arts in England, a provocative essay directed primarily against Winckelmann’s classical theory of art.

Barry remained an eccentric and visionary artist throughout his life. His historical paintings are distinguished by their absolute originality and extravagant iconography and suffused with an unconventional, sombre poetry which anticipated the aspirations of the Romantics. Barry was at odds with his time, spending his last years in straitened circumstances and complete solitude.  

The present very rare, large-format etching Reserved Knowledge echoes Barry’s monumental painting with the cryptic title Elysium and Tartarus or the State of Final Retribution (Pressly 27) which he produced in 1783 for the Royal Society of Arts. An artistic tribute to prominent personages of his time, its composition draws on Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura. The work on offer here, by contrast, shows an archangel initiating the scientists and astronomers, Newton, Galileo, Copernicus and Francis Bacon, into the secrets of the solar system. Another illustrious group of philosophers and scientists is gathered in the foreground. From left to right they are the philosophers, Thales of Miletus and René Descartes, the mathematician  Archimedes, the less well-known mediaeval theologian, Robert Grosseteste, and the Franciscan monk and natural philosopher, Roger Bacon, who was one of the first to advocate the use of empirical methods. The interaction between the various protagonists has been carefully arranged. Descartes holds a pair of compasses in his right hand while his left hand rests on an open book. This is a pointer to a scientific discourse in which the pensive Thales and Archimedes are also involved. A philosophical dialogue is similarly under way between the befriended scholars, Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon, who is about to open his principal work Opus Majus

Barry may have been a querulous recluse but as an artist he was very erudite and extremely well read, as is evidenced by the highly original pictorial programme of this work. A superb, contrasting and crisp impression with the full margins. Minor ageing, unobtrusive smoothed central fold, otherwise in excellent condition.

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