Etching and aquatint by James Barry with Archibald Macduff
Morning Chronicle, 26th April 1774;
London Chronicle, 26-28th April 1774;
Public Advertiser, 3rd May 1774;
Public Ledger, 3rd May 1774;
W.G. Strickland, A Dictionary of Irish Artists, 1913, Vol. 1, p. 44;
William Whitley, Artists and their Friends in England, 1928, Vol. 1, pp. 293-4;
Robert Wark, James Barry, Ph.D. Dissertation, Harvard, 1952, no. 8;
Peter Tomory, The Life and Art of Henry Fuseli, 1972, p. 92;
E.G. Dotson, Shakespeare Illustrated 1770-1820, Ph.D. Dissertation, New York, 1973, pp. 412-419, 439;
W.L. Pressly, The Life and Art of James Barry, 1981, pp. 55-58, no. 14, illus. plate 43;
Anne Crookshank and the Knight of Glin, Ireland's Painters 1600-1940, 2002, p. 121
"Howl, howl, howl, howl! O you are men of stones
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vaults should crack. She's gone for ever"
Barry's powerful and dramatic picture encapsulates the terrible final moments of King Lear, Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, when the old King mourns the death of his beloved daughter Cordelia whose love he had so wrongly doubted. Lear's agony and desperation is emphasised by his furrowed brow and streaming hair, whilst in total contrast his daughter seems to have embraced her death willingly, a welcome escape from the evil and violence surrounding her.
Barry's choice of this passage of Shakespeare was controversial as by the eighteenth century it had disappeared from any staged productions of the play. The unremitting tragedy of the play was considered too great a strain on the emotions, and in 1681 Nathan Tate, a minor Restoration playwright and friend of Dryden and Purcell, provided a happy ending in which the King and his daughter both survive. Other adaptions by such actors as David Garrick followed his text, and even Dr Johnson approved, finding Cordelia's death a miscarriage of justice which he could not bear. Barry scorned such attitudes. He regarded Shakespeare as a 'man of genius', praising him as someone who "found his way to the heart ... and he leads us ... through all the storms and emotions of human passions." In one of his earliest published works he had regaled the English for having "such nice feelings and so much sensibility as not to be able to bear the sight of pictures where the action turns upon any circumstance of distress" (An Inquiry into the Real and Imaging Obstructions to the Acquisition of the Arts in England), sentiments greatly in keeping with those of his mentor Edmund Burke.
King Lear weeping over the body of Cordelia marked a change in Barry's choice of subject matter. His earliest works were biblical or historical subjects, often on a large scale, and when he was able to travel to Italy through the good offices of Edmund Burke, he immersed himself in the world of the antique. Whilst there he produced enormous high minded compositions such as The Temptation of Adam and Philoctetes on the Island of Lemnos. As history painting was generally held in high esteem it was not surprising that Barry rose quickly to become Associate of the Royal Academy in 1772 (only a year after his return from Italy) and full Academician in 1773. However he found that he lacked patrons for such works and he decided to work on a generally smaller scale, producing subjects with more general appeal. The King Lear subject was an example of this, a direct appeal to the emotions which combined drama with an element of eroticism in Cordelia's lifeless body. Other examples of this new approach were Mercury inventing the Lyre (Petworth), also exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1774, and The Death of Adonis (National Gallery of Ireland), exhibited the following year. Both works introduced a new lyrical aspect to his work. It is perhaps remarkable that an artist so eagerly accepted by the Royal Academy should only have exhibited between 1771 and 1776 and only shown fifteen paintings. One possible reason was the poor reception accorded to his Death of General Wolfe, but more probably it was because he was increasingly absorbed in the colossal undertaking of the series of pictures painted for the Society of Arts.
One of the reasons for the powerful impact made by this great King Lear subject was Barry's device of filling the whole picture with the two main characters. Many earlier depictions of Shakespearian scenes required the spectator to step back as if observing actors in a performance at the theatre. Barry by contrast heightened the intensity of the subject by involving us is the emotions of the two characters. In 1787 Barry returned to the same subject for the much larger and more elaborate composition produced for Boydell as part of his Shakespeare Gallery. This monumental work, now in the Tate Gallery (figure 1), is rightly regarded as a masterpiece and one of the finest of all the Boydell pictures, but it is possible to argue that the intense emotion of the earlier picture has been somewhat diluted by all the extraneous figures and landscape shown in the later work.
Whilst there is no doubt that Barry produced a work of striking originality, there are nevertheless discernable influences. Lear's head certainly owes a debt to the Laocoon, the celebrated antique marble sculpture situated in the courtyard of the Belvedere in Rome, which was much admired by Michelangelo, one of Barry's heros. Another much later influence is Alexander Runciman's The Death of Oscar (National Gallery of Scotland) of c. 1770-1772 where the head of the grieving Fingal relates closely to Barry's head of Lear. Runciman and Barry became close friends in Rome and Barry was probably inspired to tackle a subject from King Lear after seeing his friend's King Lear in the Storm painted in Rome in 1767. Cordelia's recumbent figure recalls the figures of both Christ and the Virgin Mary in Dead Christ Mourned by Annibale Carracci (National Gallery, London), though the picture is not mentioned in his correspondence. It is also interesting to note that Fuseli had also favoured Shakespeare's original ending to King Lear and did a number of drawings of the subject. Indeed he had championed Shakespeare's original ending in his Remarks on the Writings and Conduct of JJ Rousseau of 1767 which may possibly have influenced Barry. As William Pressly points out, it cannot be a coincidence that Barry's painting and Fuseli's earliest drawing are so close in date, but Barry had left Rome in 1770 and so Fuseli could not have seen Barry's work. However it is likely that he heard of it and was inspired to draw the subject himself.
The picture remained in the artist's possession until his death in 1807, and it was included in the sale of his estate on April ... The buyer was Cooper Penrose, an enthusiastic collector who bought three other major works at the sale: Venus Rising from the Sea (Dublin City Gallery), The Prince of Wales as St George (Crawford Art Gallery, Cork), and Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida (Sheffield City Galleries). Penrose was a significant champion of Barry with whom he shared not only a love of art but also a passionate interest in a number of radical causes such as the abolition of slavery. Penrose lived at a house called Woodhill just outside Cork where his picture gallery contained a collection of Old Master paintings and statuary. The great French painter Jacques Louis David had been praised by Barry in A Letter to the Dilettanti Society, and it was fitting that Penrose took advantage of the Peace of Amiens and the temporary cessation of hostilities to travel to Paris where he was painted by David, (figure 2, Timken Museum of Art, San Diego). The sensitive portrait which resulted showed Penrose in a sober black suit which reflected both his Quaker background and his republican sympathies. The fortunes of the Penrose family changed after 1815, and by 1833 James Penrose, Cooper's son, exhibited his four Barry pictures at the Cork Society with the hope of finding purchasers. King Lear was bought by Charles Bianconi, a transport entrepreneur who was born in Italy. This was particularly fitting as it had been a Signor Bianconi who in 1770 had helped to arrange for Barry to receive a diploma from the Academia Clementina in Bologna.
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