Barber was born in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, and studied from the age of 1at the Royal Academy, London - receiving a silver medal for drawing in 1864, and first exhibiting there in 1866.
During his lifetime Barber was regarded as one of England's finest animal painters and received commissions from Queen Victoria to do paintings of her with grandchildren and dogs, and also the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and his pets. A number of his portraits are in the Royal Collection. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 186to 1893. In 188he was elected a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters.
Barber became a very popular sporting and animal painter, specialising particularly in sentimental portraits of dogs, often with children. His work ranged from photographically realistic to quick sketches. Although some have regarded his work as overly sentimental, his work remains popular, largely because of his competent painting.
Barber received his final commission in 189to paint Queen Victoria, with her grandchildren, in her pony-carriage. He died in London soon afterwards. His place as foremost painter of children and pets was taken by Arthur Elsley.
Many of Barber's paintings were engraved. He exhibited at the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Walker Art Gallery and Manchester City Art Gallery. Much of his art is at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight.