The William and Nancy Pressly Collection of James Barry Prints

2015 002 001 V0001James Barry (Irish, 1741–1806), The Phoenix or The Resurrection of Freedom, 1776/ca. 1790, etching and engraving with traces of aquatint, third state of three, 17 x 24.1 inches (plate). Gift of William and Nancy Pressly in honor of the Stent Family, 2015.002.001

2015 001 003 V0001James Barry (Irish, 1741–1806), Birth of Venus, 1776/1791, etching and aquatint in brown, second state of seven, 15 7/8 x 22 15/16 inches (plate). The William and Nancy Pressly Collection of James Barry Prints acquired with funds made available by the F. T. Stent Family, 2015.001.003

Irish Catholic artist James Barry (1741–1806) had a reputation for being offbeat. Born in Cork and making his debut as an artist in Dublin in 1763 with a painting of Saint Patrick baptizing the King of Cashel, Barry was committed to creating art that was intellectually rigorous and politically provocative. Once in London, he was accepted into the Royal Academy and was given a post as a professor. He was an activist artist whose historical, mythological, and biblical subjects were thinly veiled critiques of the British government. In an era that saw the lowly portrait and landscape rise in popularity among patrons, he held fast to the academic principle that art should be morally and spiritually uplifting. He later earned the dubious distinction of being the only artist expelled from the Royal Academy for his belligerence.

Barry had no formal training as a printmaker, but he embraced the medium for its “democratic” potential. He taught himself the various techniques—etching, engraving, aquatint, and mezzotint. He started his printmaking career by making reproductions of his paintings, hoping to spread their potent message to a broader audience than could be reached by unique images often displayed where public access was limited. He quickly learned that the printmaking process could be another opportunity for exploring creative ideas, a locus of experimentation. While most of his prints relate to his paintings, they represent theme and variation, demonstrating the evolution of his political and intellectual development, his endless iconographic invention, and his technical acumen.

Barry produced over forty prints in his lifetime. The acquisition of the William and Nancy Pressly Collection of prints brings 28 of them—many rare, lifetime impressions—to the Snite Museum. Included in the portfolio are King Lear and Cordelia, The Temptation of Adam from Milton’s Paradise Lost, two different states of the Birth of Venus, a unique impression of Blessed Exegesis, and the monumental Resurrection of Freedom, celebrating the birth of a new democratic republic in North America. Chief among the cache is Lear (1803), which was included in the first portfolio of artists’ lithographs published in England.

Combined with a Barry drawing from the John D. Reilly Collection and a copy of the artist’s lectures, letters, and treatises in the Hesburgh Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections, these holdings contribute to the University of Notre Dame’s distinction as a center for Irish and eighteenth century studies.  

The Museum is very grateful to the F. T. Stent Family for generously donating funds that made possible the acquisition of eighteen Barry prints and to William and Nancy Pressly for donating an additional ten Barry prints. 

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