This extremely rare soft-ground etching, only known in the present impression, is one of James Barry’s earliest experiments in printmaking. At the centre of the image, the proprietary stamp of the firm of Whittow & Large (WHITTOW/LARGE), a supplier of prepared copperplates active in Shoe Lane until 1781, is clearly visible and indicates that Barry etched the image onto the back side of the plate. The fact that the stamp has not been scraped out and the loose execution of the image on the whole suggests that this may have been a first attempt in the new medium, created in preparation for the more finished etching with aquatint of the same subject (Pressly 1). As the dimensions of Barry’s two etchings of Saint Sebastian are almost identical, Pressly believes that they were in fact printed from the front and back of the same plate. Whether or not it should be considered a preliminary work, Barry seems to have been satisfied with it, as he added his signature J. Barry Invt to the plate at lower left.
Two preparatory drawings, executed on the recto and verso of the same sheet, are known (National Gallery of Ireland). The composition on the verso compares closely to that of the present soft-ground etching, most notably in the more sparsely wooded setting, in the contours of the oak tree, the figure of the Saint, and the mountainous vista. Details such as the forked branch on the left and the sweep of drapery along the length of the Saint’s right side, which overflows at his feet, are so close to the etching that a reversed tracing of the drawing may have been used as its basis.
Pressly thought Barry’s composition to be mainly derived from Agostino Carracci’s engraving of Saint Sebastian of 1580 (Bartsch 88, Bohlin 18). Barry however departs from any traditional representation of the Saint, who is invariably shown with his face turned up and his eyes cast heavenward. For Barry’s saint, there seems to be no consolation from above and a dark shadow has fallen over his eyes. Unlike Carracci’s stoic martyr, he appears to have already expired, his body slumped against the tree and his bound arms outstretched in a manner echoing that of the crucified Christ.