Satan, Sin and Death: 'Death and Sin met by Satan on his Return from Earth'

This hitherto unpublished drawing represents an important addition to Barry's preparatory sketches illustrating John Milton's Paradise Lost, part of his scheme for a 'Milton Gallery' begun in about 1792. In its large scale, Michelangelesque nude figures, close focus and boldness of execution it matches four other large drawings executed for the series of engravings (see W.L. Pressly, The Life and Art of James Barry, New Haven and London, 1981, pls. 103, 113, 114 and 116; W.L. Pressly, James Barry: The Artist as Hero, exhib. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1983, nos. 49, 53 and 54, all illus.; and M. Phillips, 'James Barry, Artist & Printmaker', in T. Dunne, James Barry 1741-1806, 'The Great Historical Painter', exhib. cat., Cork, Crawford Art Gallery, 2005, nos. DR 7, 9 and 11, all illus.).

Work on the scheme appears to have begun with six small sketches drawn in pen and ink and black chalk on spare sheets of paper advertising Barry's etchings after his paintings in the Society of Arts and dated 23 April 1792 (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum).

The series is then mentioned in a letter by Barry to the Earl of Radnor, 23 December 1794, in which he states that 'The work is in good forwardness, and though at present a little interrupted by the consequences of the unlucky visit of the thieves who broke into my house, is nevertheless, with God's blessing, likely to go on'. By 1799, however, Barry was less optimistic; in a letter of 4 August addressed to King George III and published in the Morning Post for 3 December he laments that the project 'though so far advanced, has been, notwithstanding, unfortunately turned to the wall, with every melancholy appearance of abandonment and neglect'. He adds an attack on imitations of these works by, apparently, Edward Francis Burney. In the end he only produced two oil sketches and some dozen engravings including Milton dictating to Edward the Quaker of circa 1804-5. The number 'XXII' on the mount of the present drawing may be a reflection of Barry's original intentions. (Pressly, op.cit., 1981, pp. 153-4, gives a partial list of the subjects intended to be included).

The etching of Satan, Sin and Death is close in size and treatment to those of Satan and his Legions hurling Defiance towards the Vault of Heaven and The Discovery of Adam and Eve, and differs in certain details from the drawing. In particular the profile of Satan's head is shown in full, not partly obscured by his shoulder, and the key to Hell hangs on Sin's right hip rather than centrally (the engravings are illustrated in Pressly, op.cit., 1981, pls. 109 and 119).

The passage illustrated by the present drawing occurs in Paradise Lost, Book II, line 630 ff. Satan arrives at the Gates of Hell which he finds defended by his daughter Sin, in the center, and Death, on the left. Death attempts to oppose Satan with violence, but Sin intervenes, revealing that Death is the product of her incestuous union with Satan. The subject was a common one in the 18th Century in both illustrated texts and independent pictures and engravings, the painting by Hogarth of circa 1735-40 being the most famous; engraved, 1767, 1792 and 1794 (Tate Britain; see E. Einberg and J. Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters from 1675-1709 (Tate Gallery Collections Vol. II), London, 1988, pp. 88-90, illus. in colour). In addition Pressly sees the specific influence of the colored engraving of 1792 by James Gillray on the depiction of Satan as seen from behind (op. cit., 1981, pp. 161-2, pl. 110). Further influences suggested by Pressly are Henry Aldrich in the 1668 edition of Paradise Lost for Death, Salvator Rosa for Sin, and for Satan, the figure of Macbeth in Reynolds' Macbeth and the Witches (Pressly, op. cit., 1981, p. 164, pl. 111 for an engraving after Reynolds).

Barry also made a life drawing for the figure of Satan (Pressly, op.cit., 1981, pl. 112). But all these influences are transcended into Barry's own form of the Sublime. Moreover Barry would seem to have shared something of William Blake's view that Milton, as seen in Paradise Lost, 'was a true poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it' (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, circa 1790).

The sale of the contents of Barry's studio held at Christie's on 10 April 1807 after his death included three lots containing subjects from Milton: lot 44, 'Seven from Milton, the Adelphi Pictures [three in the Society of Arts], &c.', £2.15.0; lot 54, 'Five from Milton', £4.6.0; and lot 46, 'Finished outline of the Venus, a subject from Milton, Judas returning the thirty pieces of silver and six more', £2.12.6. The size and importance of the present rediscovered drawing and the fact that the lowest number of drawings, five, was in lot 54 and went for the highest price, suggests that this lot was the most likely to include it, if it was in the sale at all.

The inscription 'Countess of Guilford' probably refers to Susan, the heiress and daughter of the banker Thomas Coutts, who married George, 3rd Earl of Guilford in 1795 and outlived him by some thirty-five years dying in 1837. She was a friend and patron of Henry Fuseli who died in her house on Putney Hill in 1825.

We are grateful to Martin Butlin for his help in preparing this catalogue entry. We thank Professor William Pressly for confirming the attribution on the basis of a digital photograph.

Signature: Inscribed 'Picture XXII Milton Gallery' (lower left on the backing sheet)

Possibly James Barry (†); Christie's, London, 10 April 1807, part of lot 54 (£4.6s to Denham).

Susan, Countess of Guilford.

with Galerie Bollag, Lausanne.

About James Barry

Irish, 1741-1806, Cork, Ireland, based in London, United Kingdom

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