Francis Barlow Biography

Francis Barlow




Printmaker, painter, illustrator, decorator, and satirist Francis Barlow was born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1626. A prolific body of work and a history of noted collaboration and commissions belies his relative obscurity, and he has been cited in recent times as being as popular as Van Dyck and Hogarth in his day. Dubbed the "father of British sport painting" by ArtUK, and noted as Britain's first wildlife painter and the first professional cartoonist (owing to the use of speech balloons and to the signing of his name to his satirical illustrations), he has nonetheless been neglected by the art world and the reason for this remains a mystery. 

An exact date of birth is not found, nor is a history of his artistic training. It is known that he was a pupil of London artist William Sheppard, and that he focused primarily on animals, natural history, and hunting scenes, and this output greatly influenced future sporting artists. His work in this subject matter was so respected that Wenceslaus Hollar copied twelve of his drawings in a series of engravings titled Several Ways of Hunting, published in 1671. Further interest in his work owed to his use of subtle symbolism to capture the mood of the English populace in relation to sociopolitical upheaval; particularly, as they emerged from civil war and, later, the fallout of the "Popish Plot", a fictious and ultimately lethal scourge of anti-Catholic hysteria engineered by English priest Titus Oates. His set of playing cards satirizing the fake plot, designed around 1680 and titled The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot, became extremely sought after and furthered the popularity of the mostly obscure cartoon format.

Barlow's reputation first grew with the publication of Edward Benlowe's Theophila; or, Love's Sacrifice in 1652, which contained twelve of Barlow's plates. His most frequent collaborator was the Scottish author John Ogilby, for whose translation of Aesop's Fables Barlow would design 110 woodcuts, many of which he tranferred to etchings himself rather than hire the labor out. As the Glorious Revolution approached in the late 1680s he was viewed as the chief satirical illustrator for the Whig party - rivals to the Tories - and the party's MP retained the largest collection of Barlow's paintings, much of which survives today. 

For reasons unknown, Barlow's life ended in poverty and he was buried on August 11, 1704, despite his popularity and the support he received from friends and admirers. 

Francis Barlow's work is included in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate London, and Ham House in London, UK; the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, Connecticut, the Chicago Art Institute, Illinois, and the San Francisco Arts Museums, California, in USA; and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia, among others.