1. Duck and its Brood, by Francis Barlow

by Dr Jennifer Johnson – 30 April 2020
In our first post, Dr Jennifer Johnson discusses a 17th-century painting of a duck and its ducklings
Duck and its Brood.jpg Francis Barlow, Duck and its Brood, late 17th century, H 33.7 x W 49.5 cm, oil on panel

There are ducklings in the ponds across Oxford at the moment, so this seems an appropriate image to start a weekly selection from the St John's collection. This small image, painted in oil on wood panel is attributed to the seventeenth-century painter, illustrator and satirist Francis Barlow (c. 1626-1704). We know that it has been in the College's possession since at least 1728, as it appears in a manuscript inventory from that year.

Barlow is often described as Britain's first wildlife painter (St John's also owns Three Hares, similarly attributed to Barlow). Although the accuracy of his depictions is obvious, his more caricatural work as a satirist can also be detected in the lively style in which the duck is painted here. It's a surprisingly intimate image, capturing the group as they turn together and viewed closely, looking up into the somewhat direct gaze of the duck. It has been argued that Barlow's wildlife paintings and prints have a subversive subtext, revealing anxieties and opinions in a post-Civil War Britain.

At the beginning of a strange term, maybe we can also read these ducklings against a dawn sky as a hopeful image. 

View the painting on Art UK here.

Jennifer Johnson

Dr Jennifer Johnson, Junior Research Fellow in History of Art
Find out more about Dr Johnson's art historical research at St John's here