At one time considered one of the leading landscape painters in Europe, Barret was compared with another leading artist of the day, Richard Wilson, who, according to Sir William Beechey (1753-1839) resented the comparison with 'the great favourite [who was] universally patronised, [who] rode in his carriage while Wilson could scarcely get his daily bread', and he 'used to call Barret's work spinach and eggs' (quoted in P. Butler, Three Hundred Years of Irish Watercolours and Drawings, London, 1997, p. 53).
Believed to have been introduced to the 2nd Viscount Powerscourt, a landowner in County Wickford, by the artist Edmund Burke, Barret's early work includes celebrated landscapes painted for the Powerscourt demesne, such as Powerscourt House under the Sugar Loaf Mountain (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven). Moving from Dublin to London in the late 1760s, Barret launched his career by exhibiting a view of the River Dargle and Powerscourt Waterfall at the Society of Artists in 1764, and was a founder member of the Royal Academy in 1768, where he exhibited regularly until his death.
In 1780 he was commissioned to decorate a room at Norbury Park, Surrey, for William Lock, in collaboration with William Sawrey Gilpin (1762-1843, see lot 171), Giovanni Cipriani (1727-1785) and Benedetto Pastorini (fl. 1775-1810), and it would have been whilst he was working on this commission that the present watercolour would have been executed, perhaps as a study for the works in the house, or alternatively as a private commission from William Lock. Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827) commented at the time that his good opinion of Barret's work was confirmed on seeing the paintings at Norbury, particularly the depiction of trees, which he considered 'admirable for taste and freedom' (K. Garlick and A. Macintyre, The Diary of Joseph Farington, New Haven, 1978-85, XII, p. 4219 (16 October 1812)). Similarly, the Irish clergyman and art historian, Matthew Pilkington, writing in 1770 said that 'Scarcely any painter equalled him in his knowledge or execution of the details of nature, the latter of which was particularly light, and well calculated to mark most decidedly the true characters of the various objects he represented, forest trees in particular'. His success at Norbury lead to commissions at other noteable estates of the period including those of 1765 when he executed ten views of the house and grounds at Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, for William Cavendish Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland.
Lock's collection, which included an important group of works by contemporary artists such as Sir Thomas Lawrence, Barret and Richard Wilson (see lots 118-119), was largely dispersed in his sale at Sotheby's in 1821.