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William Pitt, Earl of Chatham (recto); William Pitt, Earl of Chatham (verso)
Barry issued this commemorative print four months after the death of William Pitt the Elder on May 11, 1778, representing the politician, with his distinctive nose, in the form of a classical bust…The glimpse of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background, a motif frequently deployed by Barry in various moral capacities, is intended here as a reminder of Pitt’s loyal service to the City of London, one more assiduous, the artist believed, than that of the king. In the first version of this print, seen on the recto of this sheet, Barry also included a diatribe against George III and his dismissal of Pitt in 1761, stating of the Secretary of State that: “his august mind over-awed Majesty, and one of his Sovereigns thought Majesty so impaired in his presence, that he conspired to remove him, in order to be relieved from his superiority.” However, he erred on the side of political caution when he reissued the print in ca. 1790 (seen in an impression on the recto of the sheet), and scratched out this reference to the king’s machinations.
The rare survival of impressions of two distinctly different states of the same plate on one sheet of paper is revealing in several respects. After all, more than a decade had passed by the time Barry returned to his large aquatints of the late 1770s in order to laboriously remove the subtle tones that so much appeal to us in the early impressions of The Birth of Venus 2015.001.003 and the portrait of William Pitt. However, one reason for the virtual unobtainability of his prints today is undoubtedly the artist’s oft-noted lack of success with the print collectors of his own time. Further proof of this might be found in the very existence of such double-sided impressions: piles of his elaborately executed large-size aquatints must still have been lying around in his workshop years after they were pulled, and one cannot help feeling that Barry’s use of the versos of these sheets was not merely instigated by an inability to afford new paper stock. There might well have been an element of his notorious defiance in the gesture, a sort of challenge to the collector to choose whichever side he preferred—and to take the etching if he could not appreciate the delicate aquatint of the artist’s first endeavor.
from Bindman, No Cross, No Crown: Prints by James Barry from the Collection of William L. and Nancy Pressly (Notre Dame, 2016)