Catalogue entry

[from] FIVE ENGRAVINGS FROM THE SERIES AFTER ‘THE PROGRESS OF HUMAN CULTURE AND KNOWLEDGE’ FIRST PUBLISHED 1792–5 [T03784-T03788]

Etching and engraving on hand-made paper, various sizes, each cut close to plate-mark
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Prov: ...; Christopher Mendez, from whom bt by the Tate Gallery
Exh: James Barry, An Account of the Series of Pictures in the Great Room of the Society of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce at the Adelphi, 1783, reprinted in [ed. Dr Edward Fryer], The Works of James Barry, Esq. ..., II, 1809, pp.301–415 (also abridged in [ed. D.G.C. Allan], The Progress of Human Knowledge: A Brief Description of the Paintings by James Barry in the...Great Room of the Royal Society of Arts, 1974 and later eds.); James Barry, A Letter to the ... President, Vice Presidents and the Rest of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of the Society ... of Arts, 1793, reprinted in Works ..., II, 1809, pp.417–74; D.G.C. Allan, ‘The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture; James Barry's Paintings for the Royal Society of Arts ... 1777–1801’, part i, Connoisseur, CLXXXVI, 1974, pp.100–109, part ii, Connoisseur, CLXXXVIII, 1975, pp.98–107; William L. Pressly, The Life and Art of James Barry, 1981, pp.86–122, 127–32, ‘Catalogue of Prints’, pp.263, 272–9

The Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, founded in 1754, moved in 1772 into a house designed by Robert and James Adam, behind the Strand and opposite the Adelphi, in a street now called John Adam Street (where the Society still thrives). The Society then invited nine artists including Barry to paint pictures for its new Great Room; this invitation was declined. In 1777 Barry proposed to the Society that he should undertake the entire decoration of the Great Room without fee (the Society providing him with canvases, paints and models); this offer was accepted. Barry painted a series of six large canvases, each twelve feet high and of varying widths, which were installed as murals in the Great Room, his decorative sequence being interrupted (to his displeasure) only by portraits of the Society's first President by Gainsborough and the second President by Reynolds.

In Barry's words, the unifying purpose of his paintings for the Society of Arts was to illustrate ‘one great maxim or moral truth, viz. that the obtaining of happiness, as well individual and public, depends upon cultivating the human faculties. We begin with man in a savage state ... and we follow him through several gradations of culture and happiness, which, after our probationary state here, are finally attended with beatitude or misery’ (Account, 1783, reprinted in Works, p.322). He gave the six subjects individual titles; these titles, in order of the paintings' narrative sequence and their arrangement round the room, are ‘Orpheus’, ‘A Grecian Harvest-Home’, ‘Crowning the Victors at Olympia’, ‘Commerce, or the Triumph of the Thames’, ‘The Distribution of Premiums in the Society of Arts’ and ‘Elysium, or the State of Final Retribution’. Though neither Barry nor the Society gave the paintings or Barry's prints after them a collective title, such a title evolved as ‘The Progress of Human Culture and Knowledge’, by which both paintings and prints are now generally known.

In 1783, when his paintings for the Great Room were virtually finished, Barry published a pamphlet inviting subscriptions to a series of six prints, one after each painting. He first published these six ‘large’ prints in 1792. Between 1793 and c. 1802, he engraved and published six further ‘small’ prints of details from the paintings. One of these, ‘The Diagorides Victors’ (T03788), was taken from ‘The Crowning of the Victors at Olympia’; the other five were of different groups of figures in ‘Elysium’. Barry also engraved a double plate of ‘King George and Queen Charlotte’, whose portraits he had hoped to paint as ‘the two Grand Centres’ of his scheme for the Great Room. The six ‘large’ and six ‘small’ and the double royal portrait were republished after Barry's death as a volume, with letterpress, entitled A Series of Etchings by James Barry, Esq from his Original and Justly Celebrated Paintings in the ... Society of Arts, 1808.

Barry had discussed the subject-matter of his paintings for the Great Room in his Account of 1783. He discussed his engravings of them in his Letter of February 1793. In this he pointed out firstly, that his account of the paintings would be ‘misleading’ to a student of the prints, as he had made many ‘alterations’ in them necessitated by reducing the scale from the ‘natural heroic size’ of his paintings (twelve feet high) to a height of seventeen inches, a size governed by the size of paper and glass available rather than by the proportions of the paintings. Barry's prints of the subjects are certainly by no means purely reproductive, as their composition and details show many alterations. Secondly, he explained (Letter 1793, reprinted Works, p.421) that he had intended to publish the large prints and his account of them simultaneously; but as he had met with ‘disappointment’ from the printers, he had been obliged to print the engravings himself. This delayed their publication by a year (the ‘large’ prints bear the publication date 1791, but were not in fact issued until May 1792), and ‘this labour so fatigued me that I let the prints go out without any writing to notify the alterations’. Characteristically, Barry suspected a conspiracy which ‘tampered with’ his printers; he refers to a ‘dark and dirty influence’ and to a ‘long steadily continued Machiavellian industry, which has followed this work, and endeavoured to quash and interrupt it in every stage of its progress’.

Barry continued to add or alter details both in the paintings and in the prints. The numbering of the various states of the prints is established in Pressly 1981 (‘Catalogue of Prints’, pp.263–81) and followed here. Pressly (p.131) quotes a bill, said to be in Barry's handwriting, but undated, which includes ‘3 sets of “Human Culture” ... £18180’, indicating that Barry had begun to use the short title ‘Human Culture’ for his Society of Arts paintings and that he charged six guineas for each set of the prints.

One detail of Barry's fifth picture, ‘The Distribution of Premiums in the Society of Arts’, is of special relevance to Barry's print-making. In his Account of 1783 Barry describes his inclusion of various items for which the Society had awarded premiums and bounties; these include ‘large paper of a loose and spongy quality, proper for copperplate printing, which is, and has long been a very great desideratum, as our engravers (whose works are now a considerable article of commerce) are for the most part obliged to make use of French grand aigle and colombiez, at six times the price of what paper of the same quality might be manufactured for in England’ (p.348). Evidently Barry used ‘paper of a loose and spongy quality’ for making his Society of Arts prints.

T03786 THE DISTRIBUTION OF PREMIUMS IN THE SOCIETY OF ARTS first published 1792

Etching and engraving 16 1/2 × 20 1/16 (420 × 510) on paper 16 15/16 × 20 3/4 (430 × 528)
Etched inscription below subject ‘The Society for the Encouragement of ARTS &c in the Distribution of their Annual Premiums’ across upper centre; ‘Painted, Engraved & Published by James Barry R.A. Professor of Painting to the Royal Academy May 1. 1791.’ across lower centre; crest of the Prince of Wales inscribed ‘ICH DIEN’ centre, in middle of inscription; ‘7th’ far r.
Lit: Pressly 1981, pp.273–4, no.21, third state of four

Barry discusses this print in his Letter of 1793 (Works, II, pp.424–5). He points out that ‘there is no difference of arrangement between the print and the picture’; but because this crowded composition has had to be compressed, some heads and figures of comparatively minor importance have been omitted, notably in the group which portrays Dr Samuel Johnson between the Duchesses of Rutland and Devonshire. The print does not include the silver tea kettle which was later added to other items of British design and manufacture in the lower right corner in the painting.

Barry's copperplate of this subject, 421 × 511mm, impressed on the back ‘B. WHITTON | No.44 SHOE LANE | LONDON’, is in the collection of the Royal Society of Arts.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986