Cultivating the Human Faculties: James Barry (1741-1806) and the Society of Arts

Cultivating the Human Faculties: James Barry (1741-1806) and the Society of Arts

Cultivating the Human Faculties: James Barry (1741-1806) and the Society of Arts

Cultivating the Human Faculties: James Barry (1741-1806) and the Society of Arts

Synopsis

This book contains a series of essays on different aspects of Irish painter James Barry's monumental cycle of paintings 'The Progress of Human Knowledge', in the Great Room of the Royal Society of Arts. Barry's work is debated in the context of wider issues such as nationalism and improvement and publicity and patronage.

Excerpt

During the first half of the eighteenth century the British were stereotyped as being a manual and “mechanick” nation, lacking the artistic imagination and flair of their French counterparts. In response, from the 1730s there was growing debate about improving the training of designers connected with the economic role of luxury commodities in the context of foreign competition. These debates were aired publicly through print, and were part of an explosion of interest in design, not only academic but also popular, which gained momentum in the 1750s. Charles Saumarez Smith has attributed this phenomenon to three distinct yet interconnected factors: a growing sense of nationalism, expressed in the fear that the increasing volume of imported foreign luxuries was endangering native British prosperity; an intellectual environment in which political economy was conceptualized in terms of improvement; and a boom in print culture, made possible by the expansion of publication and circulation, providing hitherto unimagined opportunities for publicity.

In 1751 Malachy Postlethwayt, in his Universal Directory of Trade and Commerce, repeated John Gwynn’s call for the training of “ingenious workmen,” this time for the ornamental as well as the fine arts, “to improve the perfection and delicacy of our Old Manufactures, and to discover such New Trades and Manufactures, as will enable us, at least, to keep pace in wealth and power with our rival nations, if we cannot go beyond them.” In 1754 action was finally taken by William Shipley, who founded the Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Shipley ran a drawing school in rooms adjoining their meeting rooms, and many of his students entered the Society of Arts drawing competitions.

Yet the boundaries between, and methods of, training for the fine and applied arts were hotly debated. Sir Joshua Reynolds among others believed that training in the fine arts would percolate down to the mechanic arts. In his seventh Discourse to the Royal Academicians he was to argue that, “As our art is not a divine gift, so neither is it a mechanical trade,” and he warned against “sacrificing to fashion,” which was the fault of the “mechanick and ornamental arts,” while upholding the primacy of “history” painting, which he believed would “improve” English painting. Yet artists and designers were united in this aim of improvement, even if attained by different routes and with different moral implications. One of the most enthusiastic purveyors of this idea was James Barry, who in 1774 published An Inquiry into the Real and Imaginary Obstructions to the Acquisition of the Arts in England, a powerful polemic in favor of the kind of patronage which would allow the development of what he saw as a higher type of art. In 1777 he undertook to put these beliefs into practice, beginning work on a cycle of six paintings, known as The Progress of Human Culture and Knowledge, for the “Great Room” of the Society of Arts, illustrating “one great maxim of moral truth, viz. that the obtaining of happiness, individual as well as public depends upon cultivating the human faculties.” Barry offered these without any fee other than the . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.