• Peter Byrne

Berkeley Questions 1


I Why is the Berkeley Circle so named?

Because George Berkeley, an Irish intellectual, took note of Lecce during one of his two trips to Italy between 1716 and 1720.


II What is the image of Berkeley presently on the Circle website?

Detail of an oil painting, 1732, by John Smibert held by the National Portrait Gallery, London. Berkeley was forty-five.




III Do we have a more intriguing image of Berkeley?

Colin Maclaurin’s, engraved by S. Freeman and deposited in the British Museum.


IV How does it intrigue?

Berkeley wears a huge muff-like wig above his eyes that say, “This is how I keep stupidity out of my ears”. He was fifty or thereabouts.


V Was he never pictured younger?

At thirty-five, in a portrait by John Smibert, shown on page 257 of Tom Jones’ book. Berkeley is on the defensive, ready to make a cutting reply, a shade self-righteous.


VI Who on earth is Tom Jones?

He is the author of ‘George Berkeley, A Philosophical Life’, 622 pages, 2021, Princeton University Press. On George Berkeley, it’s the last word and then some.


VII Why always Smibert?

He met Berkeley in 1720 in Rome and did the portrait there. The artist became a friend and would go to Rhode Island with Berkeley. In the proposed college in Bermuda, Smibert was to lecture on painting and architecture to inculcate European civilization into the indigenous Americans who were to be made Christians. When the Bermuda College proved a utopian pipe dream, Smibert remained in Boston to pursue his career as a portraitist.


VIII If Berkeley’s gift to Lecce was to acknowledge its existence in English, what was Lecce’s and Italy’s gift to him?

His education in rustic Ireland had been in mathematics, science, philosophy, and theology. Italy awakened him to architecture and town planning. It made him appreciate and begin to collect painting and sculpture. It fixed his attention on music and dance. These interests would enter into doable projects for the rest of his life. Berkeley’s obsession with the tarantula has been seen as foolish. In fact, it was part of serious consideration of the relation of music to bodily movement.

IX Can you sing on?

Berkeley teased a correspondent in 1742: “To be plain, we are musically mad. If you would know what that is, come and see.” Tom Jones writes: “Berkeley’s musical taste was shaped in part by his tours in Italy, where he observed the role of music and dancing as something between symptom of disease and the therapy that cured it in the behaviour of tarantati in southern Italy”.


X Does Tom Jones’ book offer more revelations of the sort?

A circus parade of them. But I curb my enthusiasm and take care crossing the road. The traffic of words is relentless. I wait for a gap my size and slip through, one tiny step at a time. Follow me.

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