In Elysium: Prints by James Barry

An exhibition of original prints by ‘the great historical painter’ James Barry and his contemporaries, held in Studio 3 Gallery, Jarman Building on the University’s Canterbury campus from the 4th October – 17th December 2010.

In Elysium is co-curated by Jon Kear and Ben Thomas of the University of Kent’s History and Philosophy of Art department within the School of Arts. The exhibition is organised in association with the Centre for Studies in the Long Eighteenth Century, which is also organising the related day-conference The Visual and the Verbal in the Eighteenth Century on 5 November 2010. A catalogue of the exhibition with an introductory essay is available.


Drawing on private collections, and the University of Kent’s own Kent Print Collection, this exhibition brings together a group of 16 original prints by James Barry, together with reproductive prints after his paintings. These works will be displayed along with prints by and after Barry’s contemporaries, including Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Richard Wilson, John Hamilton Mortimer and Henry Fuseli.

Ben Thomas writes: ‘James Barry (1741-1806) was a controversial figure in his time. An Irish Catholic from a poor background, he was supported as a young and ambitious artist by the philosopher Edmund Burke and the artist Joshua Reynolds, whose theories on high art and the sublime influenced him profoundly. Through his uncompromising behaviour he later alienated both friends. To his admirers, including William Blake, Barry was a martyr to the principles of high art in a corrupt and superficial age. However, to others he appeared an eccentric and irascible man with a persecution complex and radical views.

Whatever contemporaries felt about Barry’s character, he was an artist who created a highly original body of works, including one of the most striking and important print oeuvres of the Eighteenth Century. A technical innovator in printmaking, Barry produced prints on a grand scale and in a style that his patrons often found ‘coarse’ but which appears bold and forceful to modern eyes.

Barry’s prints were made initially to financially support his unpaid work on the murals in the Great Room of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (now the RSA) at the Adelphi in London from 1777. These paintings illustrate Barry’s firm belief in the crucial role played by the arts in the ‘progress of human culture’. They were described in a contemporary review in the Morning Herald as ‘one of the greatest exertions of genius that ever took place in any country’ and the Great Room has been aptly described more recently by Andrew Graham-Dixon as Britain’s Sistine Chapel. Through continually reworking his prints after these murals, Barry was able to revise and comment on their complex message. The title of the exhibition – In Elysium – refers to the most ambitious of these murals, the Elysium and Tartarus, where Barry immortalised in an imaginary heaven the scientists, politicians, thinkers and artists he admired.

Alongside prints of the Society of Arts murals, the exhibition will also displays works that demonstrate Barry’s engagement with the literature of Greek and Roman antiquity, and also with the great English poets Shakespeare and Milton.’

For more information please contact the School of Arts on 01227 827228

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