| Savin Hill’s Irish mystery artist
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By William J. Loughran
Boston Irish Echo September 25, 1982
Boston—On a parlor wall of the Clapp House, home of the Dorchester Historical Society at 195 Boston St., hangs a large well executed oil painting, portraying what we now know to be an early 19th century view of Savin Hill, a small rocky headland which, before a succession of landfills, nudged easterly into Dorchester Bay. The painting is unsigned; no friendly signature tells us who the artist was.
How did the Historical Society acquire the painting? On Oct. 25, 1924, it received from Mrs. Rachel Howe Roberts of Vose’s Lane, Milton, a letter, reading as follows:
“I have a picture of Savin Hill, painted many years ago, the artist’s name unknown. I presume it is of little or no value as a work of art, but rather interest, shwing Savin Hill before any houses were built there. If you should care to have this picture, I will send it to you. Yours truly, Mr. R.H. Roberts.
The Society, of courser, was delighted to acquire the painting.
For many years this enigmatic painting hung inscrutably in the Clapp House parlor, baffling the curiosity of those nettled by its anonymous authorship. Then, by change, in 1979, Anthony Sammarco, House Curator, while poring through some of the Society’s old books, opened a hard-cover volume published by the city of Boston in 1909 to record the events of a Dorchester Day celebration, held on June 5th of that year, to commemorate the 279 anniversary of Dorchester’s founding. Parting the pages randomly, he suddenly found himself staring at a printer’s photo-electric engraving of the very painting in the parlor!
Beneath the engraving ran the legend: “View of Savin Hill from Meeting House Hill, 1830. From a painting by M.O. Barry.
M.O. Barry! Mr. Sammarco couldn’t believe it! An accomplished Irish landscape painter in 1830 in Boston? Where could he have received training? In disadvantaged Ireland, racked by the turbulences of the 1798 Rebellion, the Act of Union of 1800, Daniel O’Connell’s tempestuous drive for Catholic Emancipation? Or, in fundamentalist Boston with its formidable barriers of racial and religious prejudice? In either case hardly likely.
But there it was, a capably executed painting showing a definite degree of formal training and professionalism. Composition, color-rendering, perspective, draftsmanship, brush work were confidently handled by the style-standards of the day. No matter how talented the man, he must have had some formal training to produce a work of this quality.
Here was a research problem to whet Anthony Sammarco’s scholarly appetite. But many months of persistent inquiry turned up little information. No gallery, be it Vose’s or Child’s on Newbury St.; no museum, including the Museum of Fine Arts, had record of an M.O. Barry. No book of reference, no anthology listed him.
Eventually, Mr. Sammarco did stumble upon one other sample of M.O. Barry’s work. A Boston print dealer phoned in 1980 to say that he had an old print of Savin Hill. Would the Dorchester Historical Society care to buy it? On inspection the print turned out to be an engraving of a pen and ink sketch, drawn by one Michael O. Barry in 1856, of a railroad bridge crossing a tidal creek at Tenean Beach, Neponset. In the background rose the familiar contour of Savin Hill. The Society bought the print.
The next find was in the 1838 catalogue of the Dorchester Academy, a somewhat apocryphal institution of learning founded near Codman Square about 1811. The catalogue listed Michael O. Barry as trustee and instructor in fine arts. So, he was a school man, in fact. The vererable Dorchester Academy, long inoperative, still sants at 18 Lyndhurst Street, as tately, proticoed, Greek Revival building which would grce the National Register of Historic Places.
The last morsel of information on Michael O. Barry cropped up on a brief History of Dorchester published in 1859. This state, without documentation, that Barry was an immigrant Irish who painted local and taught at the Dorchester Academy.
“That’s it?” I asked Anthony Sammarco.
“That’s it. He’s a mystery man.”
A week later he phoned.
“Have you finished your Michael Barry story yet?”
“Don’t. There’s a whole new batch of information turned up on him.”
He then told me this extraordinary tale.
One of his members, Mrs. Eugene Sullivan of Adams St., Milton, happened to spy the 1924 from Mrs. Rachel Howe Roberts lying on a mantelpiece. She read it, and exclaimed: “Why, she was my grandmother! Where is this painting?”
“Right there,” said Sammarco, pointing. “It was painted in 1830 by a Michael O. Barry, but we don’t know much about him.”
“I know a lot about him!”
“You do? How?”
“He was a sort of ancestor of mine. I have a lot of papers about him. I’ll send them to you.”
Eventually, the writer went to see Mrs. Sullivan at her home on Adams St. He came away with this well documented fascinating account:
Michael Olcott Barry was the son of an Edmund Barry who migrated from county Cork to New York in 1799, aged 22. Ordained an Episcopalian minister in 1803, he was appointed director of an Academy in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. There he was joined, from Ireland, by his brother, James, who became a doctor, resettled in New York, and did there during a cholera epidemic of 1832.
In 1848, Edmund Bary, at age 71, was induced by his family to write a memoir of his early life. Mrs. Sullivan possesses this manuscript. In it Edmund states that his father, William Barry, was a landed squire of Kinsale, Cork, who also owned an estate at Killonen, 10 miles away, dowered to him by his wife. William had four sons who received good educations. The two youngest, Edmund and James, graduated from Trinity. An elder brother, because of involvement with the Wolfe Tone rising of 1798, was expelled from Trinity, and brought suspicion on his father. William was court-martialed and tried for treason. Though personally acquitted, his estates were confiscated and destroyed. It was this calamity which forced Edmund and James to emigrate.
The memoir states that on Oct. 30, 1803, Edmund Barry married Hapzaba Olcott of Hartford, Connecticut.
Their son, Michael Olcott Barry, was born in 1812.
On May 25, 1847, Michael Olcott Barry married Martha Howe Worthington of an old Savin Hill family. Why Barry migrated from New York or New Jersey to Savin Hill is not clear. He died, somewhat prematurely, at Savin Hill on April 29, 1858, aged 45 years and 7 months. His wife survived him by many years. His obituary states that he was senior partner of the firm of Barry and Bros. of Pearl St., Boston.
The intriguing story of Michael Olcott Barry is far from complete. But we have now, a few hard facts.
He was American-born, probably in New Jersey. The son of a Trinity graduate, he was undoubtedly well educated, though were we don’t know. An important business man, he was likely a part-time, but well trained, painter. He must have painted many pictures. What became of them?
If he was born in 1812, and painted “Savin Hill” in 1830, he was only 18 at the time. What prompted Barry to paint “Savin Hill” in 1830? Likely, because it was Dorchester’s Bicentennial. Her first settlers landed at Savin Hill on June 5th, 1630.
Who was the Rachel Howe Roberts who donated the painting in 1924 to the Dorchester Historical Society? She was the niece of Martha Howe Worthington Barry, wife of Michael Olcott Barry. She was also the grandmother of the Mrs. Eugene Sullivan (nee Martha Lillie Roberts) who gave us all this information.
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Created: June 26, 2012 Modified: June 26, 2012