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James Barry's Murals at the Royal Society of Arts: Envisioning a New Public Art
James Barry Irish Artist

Our Price:49.00
Authors: William L. Pressly
Affiliation: University of Maryland
Publication Year: Hardback October 2014
Pages: 384
Size: 340 x 240 mm

ISBN: 9781782051084


Winner of the William MB Berger Prize for British Art History 2015.

Between 1777 and 1784, the Irish artist James Barry (1741-1806) executed six murals for the Great Room of the [Royal] Society of Arts in London. Although his works form the most impressive series of history paintings in Great Britain, they remain one of the British art world's best kept secrets, having attracted little attention from critics or the general public.

James Barry's Murals at the Royal Society of Arts is the first to offer an in-depth analysis of these remarkable paintings 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.

Barry insisted on, and received, complete control over his subject matter, the first time in the history of Western art that the patron of a large, impressive interior agreed to such a demand. The artist 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. The artist disguised his deeper message due to its inflammatory nature. Were his meaning readily apparent, the Society would have thrown out him and his murals.

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. In making this case, the book brings this neglected series into the mainstream of discussions of British art of the Romantic period, revealing the intellectual profundity invested in the genre of history painting and re-evaluating the role Christianity played in Enlightenment thought.

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).
William L Pressly offers an in-depth analysis of James Barry’s murals

Average Rating: Average Rating: 5 of 5 5 of 5 Total Reviews: 3 Write a review »

  1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
5 of 5 James Barry's Murals at the Royal Society of Arts: July 15, 2015
Reviewer: CHOICE-S. Webster, emerita, Lehman College and the from USA  
Pressly's beautifully designed and illustrated monograph is an important book for a specialized audience.  Pressly (Univ. of Maryland) is the foremost authority on this late-18th-century British history painter, and Barry's mural "A Series of Pictures on Human Culture" is the artist's most significant work.  Barry conceived his program, undertaken between 1777 and 1784, as a series of six paintings that would cover the four walls of the Society's Great Room on Adelphi Street in London.  Three of the panels are devoted to classical life ("Orpheus," "A Grecian Harvest Home," and "Crowning the Victors at Olympus"), two focus on "aspects of contemporary England" ("The Modern World" and "The Distribution of Premiums in the Society of Arts"), and the sixth and largest is the series's culmination ("Elysium and Tartarus or the State of Final Retribution").  Altogether the panels form a complex iconographic program in which the painter credits classical civilization and Christianity as the underpinnings of Great Britain's modern mercantile culture.  It was the painter's expectation that the mural would "promote public welfare and virtue," thereby creating, according to Pressly, a "new public art."

Summing Up: Recommended. Graduate and research collections.

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  1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
5 of 5 James Barry's Murals at the Royal Society of Arts: July 13, 2015
Reviewer: Alex Kidson, The Art Newspaper from UK  
Pressly's elucidation of Barry's intentions is absolutely convincing and magisterial. Pressly's erudition in locating Barry's literary and artistic sources is unfailing, and he has a profound understanding of the artist's creative processes. Perhaps it is this unswerving but, in these times, unfashionable commitment to "artistic intention" that explains the book's initial, scarcely credible vicissitudes at the hands of publishers; fortunately, on sight of the text the university press in Barry's home town had no qualms, and they are to be warmly congratulated on having lavished on the volume the production values that it fully deserves. Amid so much merely fashionable writing, this is proper art history, living in and recovering the past, enriching our understanding of the way artists thought in a way that very few recent books on 18th-century British art can claim to have done.

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  1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
5 of 5 James Barry's Murals at the Royal Society of Arts: January 26, 2015
Reviewer: Brian Lynch, The Irish Times from Ireland  
This is a great book. It does more than illuminate the past; it shines a light on our present way of thinking, and not just about culture. At the very least, anyone with an eye will want to look at it - it's a beautiful object. The illustrations will surprise many into wondering why it is they are seeing Cork-born James Barry's masterpieces for the first time. Part of the explanation is practical: the works are in the Great Room of the Royal Society of Arts in London and not easily accessible to the public. An increased demand for access, though it might create a problem for the RSA, would be a sign that William L Pressly's book has had an influence beyond the academy.

It is impossible to describe in this space the complexity of the paintings. Even Pressly, with 396 pages at his disposal, leaves some doors half-opened. More remains to be said, for instance, about Barry's portrait of his patron and fellow Corkman Edmund Burke, a relationship that became tragic as Barry moved to the radical left.

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