Barry's Boyhood and Early Training

James Barry was born at the end of Water Lane (Seminary Road), Cork, on 11 October 1741. His father was a builder, publican and owner of a coaster plying between Ireland and England. His mother was Juliana Reardon. He had three brothers, Patrick, Redmond and John, and one sister, Mary Ann. When he was a boy he was brought on several sea voyages by his father, but he hated the sea and had no intention of becoming a ship owner. Thomas Bodkin, writing in Studies in 1922, said that 'Two Catholic priests, between them, gave him a thoroughly liberal education and a good knowledge of the classics.' Although James's father was a Protestant, he was brought up as a Catholic by his mother.

From a very young age he wanted to be an artist, even drawing figures on the deck of his father's ship to amuse the sailors. His father soon gave up trying to give him a taste for business or the sea. James was stubborn, single-minded, obstinate and obsessive as a boy, traits that would survive well into his adult life. As a child his mother worried that he would injure his health by staying up all night copying prints by candlelight, but Barry locked himself into his room in the same way that he would retreat into the isolation of his back-room in London many years later. His obsessive, self-injuring character was formed early. He learned the techniques of landscape painting from John Butts, but he wasn't really interested in landscapes. It was myth, classical legend, and the splendour of history that attracted Barry.

By the age of twenty-two Barry had painted Aeneas escaping with his family from the burning of Troy, Daniel in the Lion's Den, and The Baptism of the King of Cashel by St Patrick. He exhibited the latter picture at the Royal Dublin Society exhibition of 1763 and the painting was awarded a Premium for History Painting and was purchased for the Parliament House in College Green, Dublin. It was through this exhibition that Barry met Edmund Burke who brought the young artist to London in 1764 and introduced him to Sir Joshua Reynolds. Burke also arranged for Barry to work under the architect and painter James "Athenian" Stuart, to gain experience and knowledge through supervised copying of classical art.

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