James Barry’s Aesthetic World

James Barry was a man of taste. By that I don’t mean to suggest a proper or “correct” taste, or that he was appropriately fashionable. I mean that he cared about art and beauty and believed he had a judicious aesthetic sensibility. This is most obvious in his musicality and his mission to record fiddle tunes, but the diary offers numerous moments when aesthetics and a discerning taste become evident. The miller was in many ways a coarse and sometimes vulgar man – though even here we might see a kind of Rabelaisian spirit of enthusiastic engagement – but several dimensions of his life speak to a certain cultivated refinement and a delight in both the consumption and creation of aesthetic experience.

Barry was in many realms a critic – be that of his workers’ skills, a housekeeper’s beauty, or a neighbour’s talents at the bow. Sometimes this was formal, and he was often called upon to judge fiddle and piping competitions in Pictou, Barry took great pride in his critical assessments of local musicians – good and bad. He could be a harsh critic, often totally disparaging a local fiddler’s abilities. But he loved few things more than to play and engage with those he considered fine players. In fiddling and numerous other creative acts, in that space between assessment and creation, Barry found much room for experimentation and possibilities for design and expression. In his home, his music, art, writing, and printing, he found ways to express himself and to define an image of his self.

From a series of photos taken on the visit of Bessie Barry, her daughter, and grand-daughter, some time during the Second World War. The addition is on the left. Photo courtesy of Everett McCullough, Six Mile Brook, NS

In some ways, these discerning tastes spilled over into a kind of bourgeois appetite for comfort and improvement. In the 1860s, as he built a significant addition to the house he had acquired from his parents – what in the diary he terms “the new house” – he took great care in making it tastefully attractive and comfortable. The only photo we have dates from the 1940s and the house had been poorly maintained since his death in 1906. But the photo clearly illustrates the old and new sections of the house and some sense remains of arrangement and decorative detailing on the windows. What the diary makes clear is that Barry played a direct role in its design, offering regular commentary on everything from flooring to wallpaper. He also notes planting ornamental and fruit trees around the house, noting their price and provenance (the apple trees, for example, were not local grafts, but purchased from a nursery in the Annapolis Valley). The house was painted, not white-washed, and he spoke approvingly of the “soft” yellow he had chosen. Early in the diary, Barry made clear his commercial ambitions (and anxieties) and one consistent thread of the diary is Barry’s marking of his passage from indebted young man to successful business operator. New purchases – a sofa, a steel stove, and a comfortable new bed – were noted with pride, marks of successful fulfillment of his bourgeois aspirations.

As in so much of his life, though, in order to see what really drove Barry we need to turn to books and print for the most striking expressions of his aesthetic sense. His “manuscript diary” for example, shows a playful experimentation with “fonts”. In both the diary entries themselves – where the handwriting often differs dramatically, even day-to-day – and in the headings we can see a clear sense of the artful play.

Composite of page headers from October 1855 – a good illustration of his endless experimentation with “fonts” in his “manuscript diary”.

Barry also illustrated the diary with numerous drawings and poetry. Not every page header was as ornate as the one that opens this post, but the sense of play continued in fonts and illustrations throughout the diary. And his printing, much like the diaries, also made use of several fonts and numerous decorative images ending chapters and other notable transitions. No doubt part of using multiple fonts owed much to economy – that he only had so much type – but even the constraint of economy compelled thinking on page design and the appearance of his books.

More evident in the first two decades of the diary, this variety marked a daily play of styles and representation of how best to find the right style to convey the proper tone in his work.

This sense of experiment and play is most evident in Barry’s illustrative presentation of self: his name and how he signs and prints his name in his books. Indeed, it is here that we best see the connection between design, text, and self in his textual world. Barry fashioned himself in print. The diary was the centre of his on-going project of self-fashioning. But it also found expression in his books and printing. The clearest example here is in how he printed his name, both by hand and in type. Here too we find a near endless series of different forms as Barry plays with fonts, swirls, embellishments, colours, shadings, and locations in developing new ways to write/type “James Barry” owned this book. Barry, his self centred in text, engaged in an on-going wrestling match over how to present the most elemental representation of his textual self: his name.

A composite of different Barry signatures/book plates from his library. Source: Public Archives of Nova Scotia.
Composite of signatures and book plates from James Barry’s library.

In one way or another, art, playful engagement, and some form of aesthetic design played a role in James Barry’s life. It’s worth thinking about his daily practice – what it meant to play the fiddle, to write poetry, to choose and set type, to take the time to craft a new style of heading in his journal. His was a crafts-person’s life. Each day, in picking the millstones, assessing the grind, maintaining the machinery of the mill, gauging the weather and the water, he exercised dimensions of a fine crafts-worker’s skillful hands and eyes. He extended that deeply in his intellectual-artistic work. But I think it’s best to see it all as a unified whole, a life lived in critical intellectual engagement, in music, in design – as much in beauty as in craft work. Barry had an artistic sensibility, of observing and creating beauty. That he struggled to express all this, that he looked to the wider world for inspiration, speaks to a man no doubt frustrated by his limits, but still inspired to create. His free-thinking ways – both his earlier Morisonian Presbyterianism and his later secular free-thinking – were those of a mind willing to explore new possibilities, new insights, new ideas, and new visions. His open-mindedness, his aesthetic playfulness, and his disciplined craft skills combined to shape an artist on Six Mile Brook.

The outlay of the diary changed over the years, but a consistent format included month/year headers. Pointing hands were used decoratively, or in the text to indicate major news – usually deaths. Dozens of small images of people – never labelled – adorned margins.