‘The Progress of Human Culture and Knowledge’, James Barry (11 October 1741 – 22 February 1806)
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.