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Photo credit: Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce

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In 1774, the Society approached 10 artists including Sir Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin West, Cipriani and James Barry to decorate the walls of the Society's Great Room: they declined. In 1777, however, James Barry offered to paint the whole room without fee, if the Society provided materials and models. Work began in April that year, and ‘The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture’ was the result. The paintings were completed and exhibited in 1783–1784, although Barry continued working on the sequence until 1801. The series begins with Barry's attempt to depict the state of nature that Greek civilisation grew from: often presented as a golden age, Barry sought to show it as a savage and dangerous time. Orpheus is shown in the centre of the scene with his traditional lyre, and at his feet are paper, fire and, to the right, a sacrificial lamb.

Royal Society of Arts





oil on canvas


H 360 x W 462 cm

Accession number


Acquisition method

commissioned for the Society's Meeting Room, c.1777

Work type



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Royal Society of Arts

8 John Adam Street, London, Greater London WC2N 6EZ England

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