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William Berry

BERRY, WILLIAM, an ingenious artist, was born about the year 1730, and bred to the business of a seal-engraver. After serving an apprenticeship under a Mr Proctor at Edinburgh, he commenced business for himself in that city, and soon became distinguished for the elegance of his designs, and the clearness and sharpness of his mode of cutting. At this time the business of a stone-engraver in the Scottish capital was confined to the cutting of ordinary seals, and the most elaborate work of this kind which they undertook, was that of engraving the armorial bearings of the nobility. Mr Berry’s views were for several years confined to this common drudgery of his art; but, by studying some ancient entaglios, he at length conceived the design of venturing into that higher walk, which might be said to bear the same relation to seal-engraving, which historical painting does to portrait-painting. The subject he chose for his first essay was a head of Sir Isaac Newton, which he executed with such precision and delicacy, as astonished all who had an opportunity of observing it. The modesty of Mr Berry permitted him to consign this gem to the hands of a friend in a retired situation of life, who had few opportunities of showing it to others. He resume his wonted drudgery, satisfied, we may suppose, with that secret consciousness of triumphant exertion, which, to some abstracted minds, is not to be increased but rather spoilt, by the applause of the uninitiated multitude. For many years this ingenious man "narrowed his mind" to the cutting of heraldic seals, which in reality, he must have known that his genius fitted him for a competition with the highest triumphs of Italian art. When he was occasionally asked to under take somewhat finer work, he generally found that, though he only demanded perhaps half the money which he could have earned in humbler work during the same space of time, yet even that was grudged by his employers; and he therefore found that mere considerations of worldly prudence demanded his almost exclusive attention to the ordinary walk of his profession.

Nevertheless, in the course of a few years, the impulse of genius so far overcame his scruples, that he executed various heads, any one of which would have been sufficient to ensure him fame among judges of excellence in this department of art. Among these were heads of Thomson, author of "the Seasons," Mary Queen of Scots, Oliver Cromwell, Julius Caesar, a young Hercules, and Mr Hamilton of Bangour, the well-known poet. Of these only two were copies from the antique; and they were executed in the finest style of those celebrated entaglios. The young Hercules, in particular, possessed an unaffected plain simplicity, a union of youthful innocence with strength and dignity, which struck every beholder as most appropriate to that mythological personage, while it was, at the same time, the most difficult of all expressions to be hit off by the faithful imitator of nature. As an actor finds it much less difficult to imitate any extravagant violence of character, than to represent, with truth and perspicuity, the elegant ease of the gentleman; so the painter can much more easily delineate the most violent contortions of countenance, than that placid serenity, to express which requires a nice discrimination of such infinitely small degrees of variation in certain lineaments, as totally elude the observation of men, on whose minds nature has not impressed, with her irresistible hand, that exquisite perceptive faculty, which constitutes the essence of genius in the fine arts.

Berry possessed this perceptive faculty to a degree which almost proved an obstruction, rather than a help, in his professional career. In his best performances, he himself remarked defects which no one else perceived, and which he believed might have been overcome by greater exertion, if for that greater exertion he could have spared the necessary time. Thus, while others applauded his entaglios, he looked upon them with a morbid feeling of vexation, arising from the sense of that struggle which his immediate personal wants constantly maintained with the nobler impulses of art, and to which his situation in the world promised no speedy cessation. This gave him an aversion to the higher department of his art, which, though indulged to his own temporary comfort, and the advantage of his family, was most unfortunate for the world.

In spite of every disadvantage, the works of Mr Berry, few as they were in number, became gradually known in society at large; and some of his pieces were even brought into competition, by some distinguished cognoscenti, with those of Piccler at Rome, who had hitherto been the unapproached sovereign of his department of the arts. Although the experience of Piccler was that of a constant practitioner, while Mr Berry had only attempted a few pieces at long intervals in the course of a laborious life; although the former lived in a country where every artificial object was attuned to the principles of art, while Mr Berry was reared in a soil remarkable for the absence of all such advantages; the latter was by many good judges placed above his Italian contemporary. The respective works of the two artists were well known to each other; and each declared, with that manly ingenuousness, which very high genius alone can confer on the human mind, that the other was greatly his superior.

Mr Berry possessed not merely the art of imitating busts or figures set before him, in which he could observe and copy the prominence or depression of the parts; but he possessed a faculty which presupposes a much nicer discrimination; that of being able to execute a figure in relievo, with perfect justness in all its parts, which was copied from a painting or drawing upon a flat surface. This was fairly put to the test in the head he executed of Hamilton of Bangour. That gentleman had been dead several years, when his relations wished to have a head of him executed by Berry. The artist had himself never seen Mr Hamilton, and there remained no picture of him but an imperfect sketch, which was by no means a striking likeness. This was put into the hands of Mr Berry, by a person who had known the deceased poet, and who pointed out the defects of the resemblance in the best way that words can be made to correct things of this nature; and from this picture, with the ideas that Mr Berry had imbibed from the corrections, he made a head, which every one who knew Mr Hamilton, allowed to be one of the most perfect likenesses that could be wished for. In this, as in all his works, there was a correctness in the outline, and a truth and delicacy in the expression of the features, highly emulous of the best antiques; which were, indeed, the models on which he formed his taste.

The whole number of heads executed by Mr Berry did not exceed a dozen; but, besides these, he executed some full-length figures of both men and animals, in his customary style of elegance. That attention, however, to the interests of a numerous family, which a man of sound principles, as Mr Berry was, could never allow himself to lose sight of, made him forego those agreeable exertions, for the more lucrative, though less pleasing employment, of cutting heraldic seals, which may be said to have been his constant employment from morning to night, for forty years together, with an assiduity that almost surpasses belief. In this department, he was, without dispute, the first artist of his time; but even here, that modesty which was so peculiarly his own, and that invariable desire of giving perfection to every thing he put out of his hand, prevented him from drawing such emoluments from his labours as they deserved. Of this the following anecdote will serve as an illustration, and as an additional testimony of his very great skill. Henry, Duke of Buccleuch, on succeeding to his title and estates, was desirous of having a seal cut, with his arms properly blazoned upon it. But, as there were no fewer than thirty-two compartments in the shield, which was of necessity confined to a very small space, so as to leave room for the supporters and other ornaments, within the compass of a seal of ordinary size, he found it a matter of great difficulty to get it executed. Though a native of Scotland himself, the noble Duke had no idea that there was a man of first-rate eminence in this art in Edinburgh; and accordingly he had applied to the best seal-engravers in London and Paris, all of whom declared it to be beyond their power. At this time, Berry was mentioned to him, with such powerful recommendations, that he was induced to pay him a visit, and found him, as usual, seated at his wheel. The gentleman who had mentioned Mr Berry’s name to the Duke accompanied him on his visit. This person, without introducing the Duke, showed Mr Berry the impression of a seal which the Duchess-dowager had got cut a good many years before by a Jew in London, now dead, and which had been shown to others as a pattern; asking him if he would cut a seal the same as that. After examining it a little, Mr Berry answered readily, that he would. The Duke, at once pleased and astonished, exclaimed, "Will you, indeed!" Mr Berry, who thought that this implied some doubt of his ability to perform what he undertook, was a little piqued, and turning round to the Duke, whom he had never before seen, he said, "Yes, Sir; if I do not make a better seal than this, I will charge no payment for it." The Duke, highly pleased, left the pattern with Mr Berry, and went away. The original contained, indeed, the Various devices of the thirty-two compartments distinctly enough to be seen; but none of the colours were expressed. Mr Berry, in proper time, finished the seal; on which the figures were not only done with superior elegance, but the colours on every part so distinctly marked that a painter could delineate the whole, or a herald blazon it, with perfect accuracy. For this extraordinary and most ingenious labour, he charged no more than thirty-two guineas, though the pattern seal had cost seventy-five. Thus it was, that, though possessed of talents unequalled in their kind, at least in Britain, and assiduity not to be surpassed,—observing at the same time the strictest economy in his domestic arrangements— Mr Berry died at last, in circumstances far from affluent, June 3d, 1783, in the fifty-third year of his age, leaving a numerous family of children. It had been the lot of this ingenious man, to toil unceasingly for a whole life, without obtaining any other reward than the common boon of mere subsistence, while his abilities, in another sphere, or in an age more qualified to appreciate and employ them, might have enabled him to attain at once to fame and fortune in a very few years. His art, it may be remarked, has made no particular progress in Scotland, in consequence of his example. The genius of Berry was solitary, both in respect of place and time, and has never been rivalled by any other of his countrymen. It must be recorded, to the honour of this unrequited genius, that his character in private life was as amiable and unassuming as his talents were great; and that his conduct on all occasions was ruled by the strictest principles of honour and integrity.

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