'The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot' (first part). 

Francis Barlow was a 17th-century English painter. He is one of the earliest prototypical comic artists in history and one of the earliest in Great Britain, together with William Hogarth. His cartoon 'The Cheese of Dutch Rebellion' (1672-1673) makes uses of speech balloons and a text comic format. More famous is 'The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot' (1682), a text comic which makes use of speech balloons at the same time. It's the earliest signed example of what we would now call a balloon comic strip. 

He was born in 1626 around Lincolnshire and a pupil of the London artist William Sheppard, who specialized in painting portraits of both humans and animals. Soon Barlow became the leading bird and animal illustrator in 17th century England. He decorated many ceilings for castles and worked on the Abbey of Westminster. One of his earliest works was 'Theophila or Love's Sacrifice' (1652), a series of 12 illustrations of a mystic poem by Edward Benlowe. In 1666 he also provided 110 illustrations for a publication of Aesop's 'Fables'. He died in 1704.

Prototypical comics
While celebrated in his own lifetime, Barlow's paintings have nowadays been mostly forgotten. To the modern observer his animal paintings look less naturalistic compared with the more skilled artists who followed in his wake. Even artistically speaking composition was not his strongest point. The animals in his works tend to be cluttered together in every possible frame. What saves Barlow from total obscurity is his importance for the history of comics. He made many satirical cartoons which promoted the Whig party and his home country. A notable example is 'The Cheese of Dutch Rebellion' (1672-1673), a drawing which mocks the Dutch war effort against England. 1672 had been an annus horribilis for the Netherlands, even literally dubbed "Het Rampjaar" ("The Year of Disaster"), because so much political and economical troubles ravaged the country. Barlow's cartoon ridicules the Dutch military efforts as a being nothing but a mere broken egg. Inside this literal egg, Dutch politicians are attacked by all sorts of demons. The work is notable for featuring speech balloons and a moralizing text written underneath the image.

The Cheese of Dutch Rebellion
'The Cheese of Dutch Rebellion'.

The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot
Barlow also illustrated several packs of playing cards, depicting major national events from his own century. 'The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot' (1682), for instance, is a depiction of the Popish Plot, an important event in English history which occurred between 1678 and 1681. Titus Oates, a military chaplain and former priest, had claimed that the pope planned a conspiracy to murder the English king Charles II. These accusations eventually led to a witch hunt against Catholics, including the executions of at least 22 people who supposedly were part of this fictious plot. Eventually the fraud was uncovered and Oates sentenced, pilloried and whipped for the crime of perjury. Barlow transformed the events into a picture story. Here we see text written below the images, making it an early example of a text comic, but at the same time the characters also use speech balloons. And not just once, but all throughout the story. The entire tale is also spread over two different pages, counting 24 frames in total, 12 each per page. In that sense it could be considered a prototypical two-page comic. The main difference with present-day comics is that the speech balloons here are not stylized yet, but still literal banners and scrolls.

The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot, by Francis Barlow 1682
'The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot' (second part).

Barlow was not the inventor of picture-stories, nor speech balloons and there have been some artists in centuries before him who used sequential narratives, such as late 15th-century and 16th-century German woodcarvings by artists like Johannes van den AveeleHans Burgkmair the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Jeremias Gath, Hans Holbein the Elder, Hans Holbein the YoungerBartholomäus Käppeler, Caspar Krebs, Georg Kress, Hans Rogel the Elder, Hans Rogel the YoungerErhard Schön, Johann Schubert, Hans Schultes the ElderLucas Schultes and Elias Wellhöfer and some works by Hieronymus BoschPieter Bruegel The Elder, Frans Hogenberg's picture stories about 'The Spanish Fury' (1576) and the 'Murder of Henry III' (1589), Antonio Tempesta's 'Life of St. Laurentius' (1599) and 'Batavorum cum Romanis Bellum' (1612), Otto van Veen's 'De Bataafse Opstand' (1600-1613), Jacques Callot's 'Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre' ('Miseries of War', 1633), various 17th-century comic strip-like cartoons by Romeyn de Hooghe and William Hogarth's sequential paintings and engravings crafted between the 1720s and 1750s.

Still, his contribution to the history of comics should not be underestimated. His predecessors sparingly used speech balloons in illustrations, let alone sequences to tell a story. Most barely combined the two and even the few who did have remained anonymous. 'The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot' not only brings speech balloons, framed sequences and recurring characters together: it is also signed, thus making historians able to identify Barlow as a comic pioneer. Even after publishing this work few followed his example straight ahead. Some artists in the 18th century, like James Gillray, William Hogarth, Isaac Cruikshank, Isaac Robert Cruikshank and Richard Newton made use of speech balloons and/or sequential narratives, but rarely combined the two. In many cases, like with Richard Newton and Isaac Cruikshank, the speech balloons in those sequences are still just balloonless handwritten sentences floating above the characters heads. The first one to actually create something similar to Barlow's 'The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot' - and to sign his name underneath it - is Thomas Rowlandson with his work 'The Loves of the Fox and the Badger, or the Coalition Wedding' (1784), almost 102 years later!

Peacocks by Francis Barlow

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