Francis Barlow was the pre-eminent animal painter of his day in Britain and the first English artist whose paintings of birds could compare with those of the great continental animal artists. He is thought to have come from Lincolnshire but on the frontispiece to his Multae et Diversae avium species ... of 1671 he is noted as 'Indigenam Londinensem'. He lived and worked in London where it seems likely that he was initially apprenticed to the portrait painter William Sheppard (active 1641-60) and in 1650 he was elected a member of the Painter-Stainers' Company, by which time he had already become an accomplished draughtsman. Two years later he had a studio in Drury Lane and he had evidently already established a reputation as an outstanding animal painter when he was visited by the diarist John Evelyn in 1656, who described him as 'the famous Paynter of fowle Beastes & Birds'. His drawings were frequently taken from life and show acute skills of observation and a knowledge of anatomy.
Barlow was interested in all types of wildlife but particularly in birds. While ostriches are of African origin and the cassowary of Antipodean origin, Barlow would have had the opportunity to see such exotic birds in London. A cassowary is recorded as having been exhibited at Bartholomew Fair in the last years of the seventeenth century, but Barlow is more likely to have been able to see and study such birds in St. James's Park, where King Charles II kept his celebrated aviaries of small birds and let some of the ostriches, which had been presented to him by the Moroccan Ambassador in 1681, roam free. The King also kept several cassowaries in the park that had been presented to him by the Directors of the East Indian Company in the mid-seventeenth Century. The exotic nature of these birds, which had in all probability never been seen in England before the mid-seventeenth century, captured the artist's imagination and a number of drawings of ostrichs and cassowaries by the artist are known. The present picture of a cassowary relates closely to an image in Barlow's drawing of a group of birds in a garden, that was engraved by Jan Griffier in reverse (British Museum). In the drawing, the cassowary is also shown in profile facing to the left with a monkey perched on a stone monument beside it (E. Croft Murray & P. Hulton, The British Museum, Catalogue of British Drawings, XVI & XVII Centuries , London, 1960, I, pp. 133-4, no. 133; and II, pl. 60; see fig. 1).
A version of each of these compositions, of slightly larger dimensions scale (100 x 48in.), which are thought originally to have been in the collection of Denzil Onslow, M.P. (1640/1-1721), are among the celebrated collection of the artist's paintings at Clandon Park, Surrey (National Trust). These were probably among the pictures that the diarist John Evelyn commented on following his visit to Onslow's house at Pyrford on 24 August 1681, writing that the Hall was 'adorned with paintings of Fowle, & huntings, &c:, the work of Mr. Barlow who is excellent in this kind from the life'. Denzil Onslow died without issue in 1721, aged eighty, leaving Pyrford to his great-nephew, Thomas, 2nd Baron Onslow (1679-1740), and his timber house seems to have been demolished soon after and the pictures transferred to Clandon, where they were seen by Horace Walpole in 1764 who described 'four or five large and good pictures of animals by Barlow' ('Visits to Country Seats', Walpole Society, XVI, 1928, p. 61). 'Three large pictures of fowls' were also listed in the large saloon there in 1778.