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The Scottish Nation

BERRY, WILLIAM, an ingenious artist, was born about the year 1730. He was bred to the business of a seal engraver, having served his apprenticeship with a Mr. Bolton of Edinburgh. On commencing business on his own account, he soon became distinguished for the superiority of his workmanship, particularly for the elegance of his designs, and the clearness and sharpness of his mode of cutting coats of arms and other devices. For many years he did not attempt any thing higher in his art than the common routine of the trade at the time. His first essay in the style of the antique intaglios was a head of Sir Isaac Newton, which he executed with astonishing precision and delicacy. Nevertheless, the greater part of his life was occupied in cutting armorial bearings, as he found a greater demand in this branch of the art than for fine heads, and there were very few that could afford to pay the price. During the course of his life, he did not execute more than a dozen heads in all, any one of which was sufficient to insure him lasting fame. Among these were Thomson the poet, Mary queen of Scots, Oliver Cromwell, Julius Caesar, a young Hercules, and Hamilton of Bangour. Of these, only two were copies from the antique, and they were executed in the finest style of the art. Wherever these heads were known, they were admired as superior to anything produced in modern times. Piccler, a famous artist in the same line at Rome, who had had more practice, was the only person that could be compared to him, but each, in the true spirit of genius, gave the palm of superiority to the other. Berry possessed not merely the art of imitating busts or figures set before him, but he could execute with fidelity a figure in relieve, copied from a drawing or painting upon a flat surface; as was proved with the head he executed of Hamilton of Bangour, who had been dead for some years, and which he finished from an imperfect sketch, being all the likeness that remained fo him. Besides these heads he executed some full-length figures both of men and other animals, in a style of superior elegance. But the interests of his family made him pursue rather the more lucrative employment of cutting heraldic seals, which may be said to have been his constant employment for forty years. In this department he was, without dispute, the first artist of his time. The following anecdote is told of his excellence in this branch of art: Henry, duke of Buccleuch, on succeeding to his estate, was desirous of having a seal cut with his arms, &c., properly blazoned upon it. But as there were no less than thirty-two compartments in the shield, which was of necessity confined to a very small space, so as to leave room for the supporters, and other ornaments, within the compass of a seal of an ordinary size, he found it a matter of great difficulty to get it executed. Though a native of Scotland himself, his grace never expected to find a man of first rate eminence in Edinburgh; but applied to the most celebrated seal engravers in London and Paris, all of whom declined it, as a thing exceeding their power to execute. At this the duke was highly disappointed; and having expressed to a gentleman, who was on a visit to him, the vexation he felt on this occasion, his visitor asked if he had applied to Mr. Berry. “No,” said his grace, “I did not think I should find any one in Edinburgh who could execute a task that exceeded the powers of the first artists in London and Paris.” The gentleman advised his grace to take it to Berry, who, he would undertake, could execute it. The duke accordingly went to Edinburgh with his visitor next morning and called upon Mr. Berry, whom he found, as usual, sitting at his wheel. Without introducing the duke, or saying anything particular to Berry, the gentleman showed him an impression of a seal that the duchess dowager had got cut many years before by a Jew in London, who was dead, and which had been shown to the others as a pattern, asking him if he could cut a seal the same as that. After examining it a little, Berry answered readily that he could. The duke, pleased and astonished at the same time, exclaimed, “Will you, indeed!” Berry, who thought this implied a doubt of his abilities, was a little piqued at it; and turning round to the duke, whom he had never seen before, said, “Yes, Sir, if I do not make a better seal than this, I shall take no payment for it.” His grace, highly pleased, left the pattern with him, and went away. The pattern seal contained indeed the various devices on the 32 compartments, distinctly enough to be seen, but none of the colours were expressed. Berry, in due time, finished the seal, on which the figures were not only done with superior elegance, but the colours on every part so distinctly marked, that a painter could delineate the whole, or a herald blazon it, with the most perfect accuracy. For this extraordinary exertion of talent he charged no more than thirty-two guineas, though the pattern seal had cost seventy-five! Notwithstanding his great talents, his unequalled assiduity, and the strict economy observed in his family, his circumstances were far from affluent. He was highly respected on account of the integrity of his character, and his strict principles of honour. He married a daughter of Mr. Andrew Anderson of Dressalrig, by whom he had a numerous family. He died July 3, 1783, in the 53d year of his age.

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