James Barry's six murals at the Royal Society of Art in London, a Series of Paintings on Human Culture (1777-1784), form the most impressive series of history paintings in Great Britain, yet they remain one of the British art world’s best kept secrets.
Pressly’s book is the first to offer an in-depth analysis of these remarkable works and the first to demonstrate that the artist was pioneering a new approach to public art in terms of the novelty of the patronage and the highly personal nature of his content. The murals contain a deeper hidden meaning that has gone unperceived for 230 years, the artist having disguised his message due to its inflammatory nature. Were his meaning readily apparent, the Society would have thrown out him and his murals.
Barry's unifying vision is, at heart, a call to heal Britain's great religious schism. Running through the series is a championing of the Roman Catholic Church as the fountainhead of what should be valued most in civilisation. From his point of view, his Protestant countrymen has sold their birthright in order for Henry VIII to divorce his Spanish queen. Thus the Catholics in the British Isles were the ones who were most in tune with those eternal verities on which future progress should be based. Within the nation's boundaries, the Irish best represented the people's uncorrupted soul. As such, they were the ones best situated to lead their benighted compatriots back to their former, true selves, engaging in the healing of a national trauma.
Ultimately, as this book seeks to show, the artist intended his paintings to engage the public in a dialogue that would utterly transform British society in terms of its culture, politics, and religion.
Barry insisted on complete control over his subject matter, the first time in the history of Western art that the patron of a large, impressive interior acceded to such a demand. He required autonomy in order to present his personal vision, which encompasses a rich and complex surface narrative as well as a hidden meaning that has gone unperceived for 230 years.
Barry’s murals are an important expression of the Romantic imagination, and by establishing that he had a profound influence on shaping William Blake’s development as an artist, the book will have a great impact as well on Blake scholarship.
William L Pressly is Emeritus Professor of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century European Art at the University of Maryland. He is the author of James Barry: The Life and Art of James Barry (Yale University Press, 1981) and James Barry: the Artist as Hero (Tate Gallery, 1983).
Cork University Press, December 2014, ISBN 978-1-78205-108-4,
€49 £40 Hardback 340 x 240 mm 384 pages