Born in Easky, County Sligo, Thomas Berry was the son of Denis Berry a school’s inspector, who died when Thomas was still young, but his enthusiasm for the work of the Roscommon born Methodist evangelist, Gideon Ousley, who was then influential in the west of Ireland, may have influenced the boy in his later career. The Berrys were said to be descendents of the French aristocrat the Duc de Berri; one of whose sons had settled in Ireland in the late 17th century and a branch of whose family lived at Berrymount, County Cavan. This perhaps could explain why Thomas’s father through marriage and inheritance owned property and land, and links to the ancient and important Galway family of O’Flaherty.
Thomas entered Trinity College, Dublin in July 1822 and later the Irish Baptist Society’s seminary at Ballina, County Mayo to study theology in 1828. His subsequent ministry spanned almost half a century – years of comparative peace in Ireland – which saw Catholic emancipation; a population explosion from just over 4 million in 1785 to a record high of 8.2 million in 1841; and a decline in the usage of the Irish language as English began to dominate in most areas. His ministry took him to counties Sligo and Mayo in the west, to Abbeylix and finally Athlone in the midlands. He married in 1835 twenty year old Rebecca Anderson, the daughter of a tea and wine merchant from Sligo with whom he had four daughters. An active clergyman until the end of his life, he was buried at Cornamagh cemetery, outside Athlone. He was maternal grandfather of the Irish artist Paul Henry (1876-1958) who is renowned for his landscapes of the west coast of Ireland around Achill.
In 1823 William Bewick visited Edinburgh and afterwards moved on to Dublin in 1824 where he ‘ was introduced to most of the persons distinguished for intellectual of literary abilities in the Irish capital; and from most I succeeded in obtaining consent to sit for sketches of finished drawings, life size’. This portrait of Berry appears to date from this time and was completed whilst the sitter was in Dublin at Trinity College; it compares well with his other portraits of this type, notably that of Robert Kaye Greville and Richard Lalor Sheil (SNPG, Edinburgh). Emphasing Berry’s reflective nature Bewick depicts him gazing into the middle distance as if lost in thought with his left hand supporting his cheek in a ponderous manner. The clear but delicate use of the coloured chalks in the face, contrasts with the bold cross hatching of black chalk used to define the creases and folds of his coat and waistcoat which tail away unfinished; like his other drawings this was no doubt a hasty commission which entailed no more than a day’s work.
Bewick was born in Darlington, County Durham. He went to London when he was twenty, where he trained under the history painter, Benjamin Robert Haydon. He made a series of drawings of the Elgin Marbles for the German poet Goethe and made a name for himself as a skilful copyist. 1826 Sir Thomas Lawrence sent him to Rome to copy Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. When he returned to London in 1829 he worked as a portrait and history painter. Ill-health forced him to retire early, and he returned to live in north-east England for the last twenty years of his life.