Francis Barlow was one of the earliest prototypical comics artists in history and one of the earliest in Great Britain, together with William Hogarth. 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. 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 moralising text written underneath the image.
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 occured 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 main difference with present-day comics is that the speech balloons here are not stylized yet, but still literal banners and scrolls.
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 German woodcarvings and some works by Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel The Elder. Still, his contribution to the history of comics should not be underestimated. His predecessors sparingly used speech balloons in illustrations, left alone sequences to tell a story. Even those who did combine the two 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 comics 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!