Francis Barlow: The Decoy decoded
Though superb works of art in themselves, the wildlife paintings of Francis Barlow are full of rich metaphors that shed light on the anxieties and concerns of a Britain emerging from the horrors of civil war, says Nathan Flis.
Francis Barlow (c. 1626-1704) was England’s first wildlife painter and ranks among the most prolific book illustrators and printmakers of the 17th century. The work for which he is most often remembered is his extraordinarily lavish edition of Aesop’s Fables (1666); but in the years leading up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 Barlow was also the prime designer of political satire in support of the Whigs.
A new exhibition at Clandon Park, a National Trust property near Guildford, re-ignites interest in this surprisingly neglected artist. Clandon houses six of Barlow’s paintings, one of the largest collections of his work. They were acquired or commissioned by Denzil Onslow (c. 1642-1721), Whig MP for Surrey, to decorate his manor house, Pyrford Court. Each painting can be decoded in the context of Barlow’s prints and drawings across several genres: natural history; hunting and recreation; politics; and decoration and design.
In fact it misses the point to see Barlow’s scenes of wildlife as separate from his graphic work. To enable comparisons the exhibition includes facsimiles from collections worldwide, as well as prints lent by private collectors, illustrated books from other National Trust properties, even a pair of 18th-century chairs with needlework designs after Barlow.
Upon entering Clandon Park visitors are greeted by the lifesize Ostrich and Cassowary, painted in the 1670s. Although designed as decorative panels, the depictions were considered accurate enough to be adapted as illustrations for Ornithologia (1676) by the Cambridge naturalists John Ray and Francis Willughby, one of the first modern scientific treatises on birds.
A large painted frieze, Hounds and Hare (1660s), decorates the main stairwell. It shows a pack of southern-mouthed hounds (a stocky breed, indigenous to Britain, that probably became extinct in the 19th century) in pursuit of a hare, who has cleverly eluded them. Barlow was certainly familiar with the hunt, designing the first English sporting prints, Severall Wayes of Hunting, Hawking, and Fishing (1671), and illustrating one of the first manuals on sport, Richard Blome’s The Gentleman’s Recreation (1686). But, apart from being an early sporting picture, Hounds and Hare is also political; it is evidently the painter’s response to ‘The Hunting of the Hare’ (1653), a poem by the Royalist writer and pioneering scientist Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-73), who accompanied Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s queen consort, into exile in France. Her poem, obviously born of experience, describes a hare and its pursuit by hounds, alluding to the Royalists ‘chased’ out of England during the Civil Wars.
The final three canvases at Clandon seem to have been created as a trio around 1667-81. Each measures nine by 11 feet and was designed to be appreciated on many different levels. In all three cases individual studies of birds (undoubtedly made from life) have been worked into an imaginative composition. As in Aesop’s Fables the birds and animals of Barlow’s paintings are used to tell stories.
The Farmyard (a work desperately in need of restoration) is full of anxiety. Various fowl and their young are scattered chaotically and meet with potential danger at every turn. In one corner a sleepy-looking hog emerges from a sty, probably an allusion to apathy in the face of impending danger. The moral of The Farmyard seems to be one of caution about ever-lurking evil or the need to stand guard against temptation.
The Decoy (reproduced above) is a hunting picture with a more specific political message. Decoys – systems of cone-shaped cages placed at the ends of streams – were an effective way to trap waterfowl for the country kitchen. The ‘decoy man’ and his dog, the ‘piper’, can be seen at the hut near the centre of the picture. The painting’s theme is one of hidden versus present danger. The attention of the birds in its foreground is directed to the top right where a massive red kite swoops in, terrorising a group of mallards. However, none of the birds is aware of the threat posed by the decoy man. Barlow’s painting can be understood in the context of anti-Catholic broadsides of the period, in which the decoy cage symbolises an instrument of ‘popish’ trickery and the birds the people of God taken unawares by the Catholic clergy. Barlow’s similar use of the decoy makes sense given his activities as a satirist during the period of intense anti-Catholicism known as the Popish Plot (1678-81), a supposed Catholic conspiracy to kill Charles II, fabricated by the informer Titus Oates (1649-1705). The birds in The Decoy thus represent the people of the English nation threatened by a popish conspiracy.
By contrast the mood of Landscape with Birds and Fishes is one of serenity and prosperity. The bountiful catch of fish upon which the pairs of birds come to feed has been ensured by the hand of a mysterious, unseen provider – God, or perhaps England’s monarch. The fact that the scene is presided over by the lone kingfisher, also known as the halcyon bird (traditionally an omen of fair or sunny weather) and in another of Barlow’s prints as the ‘King’s fisher’, supports this interpretation. The three large canvases at Clandon are not simply quirky pictures crammed with creatures but strategically planned compositions that speak to the anxieties of the age in which Barlow lived.
The exhibition offers visitors the rare opportunity to view Barlow’s paintings as decorations in a country house – the setting for which they were intended – while the variety of Barlow’s graphic work on display is a rich reflection of the culture in which he lived and worked. The presence at Clandon Park of his prints and drawings provide the key to understanding a group of paintings which would otherwise resist 21st-century efforts to decode them.
Nathan Flis is the curator of Francis Barlow: Painter of Birds and Beasts at Clandon Park.
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