New politics, new methods: James Barry’s printmaking at the time of the American Revolution

Speaker: Esther Chadwick (The Courtauld)

Print in black and white of people and a building i James Barry, The Phoenix, or the Resurrection of Freedom, 1776, etching and aquatint (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven)

Rifts in the fabric of the British Empire produced spectacular and sometimes strange effects in eighteenth-century British art. The “revolution of history painting” described by Edgar Wind as long ago as 1938, in which contemporary events and topical detail came to be portrayed in the grand manner traditionally reserved for ancient heroes, was a dramatic manifestation of new attitudes towards the temporality of images among artists working in Britain in the 1770s, when the problem of how to engage with the present took centre stage. But revaluations of genre were matched by experiments with new media that were not limited to the domain of painting. Printmaking, officially a secondary and inferior activity, proved a particularly vibrant arena for artists in this critical moment. 

This lecture explores printmaking’s distinctive purchase by examining the work of the Irish artist James Barry (1741-1806), whose prints grapple with a set of key questions: how to represent the present in relation to the past and the future; whether to see history as progressive and forward-moving, or to envisage the possibility of rupture in which time might loop back or leap ahead to produce something entirely new. Above all was the question of where to position oneself as a historical agent in time, which is a central concern of Barry’s most explicitly pro-revolutionary print, The Phoenix, etched in 1776. Yet the politics of Barry’s printmaking, this lecture will suggest, inhered not simply in his prints’ overt content but in their particular materiality and, in the case of his so-called “reproductive” prints, in the relationships they established with their painted referents. 

Dr Esther Chadwick is Lecturer in Art History at The Courtauld, where she is teaches an MA degree in circum-Atlantic visual culture of the long eighteenth century. Before joining The Courtauld she was a curator in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. She received her doctorate in Art History at Yale University in 2016. She has curated exhibitions on portraiture and transatlantic slavery and on the Haitian Revolution. This lecture is drawn from her current book project, The Radical Print: Art and Politics in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain.

Organised by Professor David Peters Corbett (The Courtauld)