Myles Birket Foster

(4 February 1825 - 27 March 1899)



Birket Foster, one of the best known landscape illustrators and watercolourists, was born in North Shields, and was taken to London as a child. From age 16 he was apprenticed as a wood engraver to Ebenezer Landells (who had studied under Bewick), who advised him to turn to landscape draughtsmanship. He worked for the Illustrated London News and the periodicals of the day as a very prolific black and white artist, also illustrating many books, especially poetry, including Longfellow's Evangeline and Goldsmith's Poems. A volume of his drawings of English landscapes was published in 1863, with poetry by the critic Tom Taylor (patron of W. S. Burton), who churned out the poems to accompany the pictures after Tennyson had refused. From 1859, he had turned largely to more financially rewarding watercolours, exhibiting at the Royal Academy for the first time in that year. He was elected RWS the following year, and exhibited some 300 watercolours at the RWS gallery.


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Foster's typical illustrative work was in the form of black and white vignettes, with rather less in a larger size or in colour. His paintings and drawings have been criticised for their repetitive nature, and it is true there is something formulaic about many of the pretty scenes with trees arching across the sky. On the other hand, they are technically accomplished, catch the different aspects and character vegetative life well, and at their best, his landscapes can look most explorable.

Illustrations can be found fairly easily in books and magazines of the 1850s and early 1860s in grotty second hand bookshops.

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FOSTER, MYLES BIRKET (1825-1899), painter, born at North Shields, Northumberland, on 4 Feb. 1825, was the sixth of the seven children of Myles Birket Foster (1785-1861), by Ann, only daughter of Joseph King of Newcastle-on-Tyne. His father was a member of an old north-country quaker family, the Fosters of Cold Hesledon, Durham, and Hebblethwaite Hall, Yorkshire.

He removed to London in 1830, and the boy was educated at a preparatory school at Tottenham and at the Quaker Academy at Hitchin, Hertfordshire, where he had lessons from the drawing-master, Charles Parry. Soon after he left school in 1840, his father's friend, Ebenezer Landells [q. v.] the wood-engraver, took the boy into his own office on trial. He remained with Landells as an apprentice from 1841 to 1846, working at first as an engraver only, afterwards, by Landells's advice, as an original draughtsman on wood. Most of the woodcuts for the early numbers of Punch were engraved in Landells's office; the first of Foster's original contributions to Punch was published on 5 Sept. 1841.

He was also employed by the Illustrated London News on its foundation in May 1842, and did much work, especially for the annual almanacs published in connection with that paper. During his apprenticeship he spent his spare time in the fields at Hampstead and Highgate, making careful studies of trees and plants in water-colours. He received much kindness from Jacob Bell [q. v.], the collector of Landseer's works, who allowed him to make copies of pictures in his possession. Foster on one occasion obtained 20l. for a drawing after Laudseer.

On leaving Landells and starting as an illustrator on his own account in 1846, he obtained such ample employment from publishers that for some years he had little leisure for independent painting. His work on wood, in which he carried on the tradition derived through Harvey from Bewick, began to appear at a time when the public was tired of the steel-engravings which had enjoyed a long vogue in countless annuals and gift-books, and the change was welcome. His first patron was Henry Vizetelly [q. v.], who gave him a commission to illustrate The Boy's Country Book, in four parts, by Thomas Miller, published by Messrs. Chapman & Hall in 1847. His first great success was with the illustrations to Longfellow's Evangeline, published by David Bogue in 1850. This was followed by editions of the same poet's Voices of the Night, Hyperion, and Poetical Works, 1852. In the course of a few years Foster illustrated a large number of editions of the poets with vignettes and designs, either of pure landscape or of a domestic and sentimental character; he did his best work in black and white in illustrating Milton, Goldsmith, Scott, and Wordsworth.

He also illustrated some prose works, including his own:
Memento of the Trossachs, Loch Katrine, and Loch Lomond (1854),
Black's Guide to the English Lakes (1858), and
Henry Mayhew's Rhine (1856) and
Upper Rhine (1858), the last two with engravings on steel.
In addition to all these woodcuts and engravings by other hands from his designs, he illustrated several books with etchings on steel by himself; the first of these was
Milton's L' Allegro and
Il Penseroso, 1855 (thirty etchings), followed by
Goldsmith's Traveller, 1856 (thirty etchings), and
The Hamlet by Thomas Warton, 1859 (fourteen etchings).
This prolific period of black and white work came to an end in 1858. Foster accepted no new engagements for illustration, to which he returned only on a few occasions in later years. Thus he illustrated
Lorimer's Scottish Reformation in 1860,
Pictures of English Landscape (thirty fine wood-engravings by the brothers Dalziel, with text by Tom Taylor) in 1863, and
Moxon's edition of Hood's poems, 1871-2, for which his designs were engraved on steel by William Miller of Edinburgh.

From 1858, onwards Foster devoted himself almost entirely to painting. He spent the summer of that year near Dorking, improving himself in water-colours and making the most careful studies from nature, in which his strong eyesight and his practice in minute finish on the wood-block led him to carry detail too far.

The first drawings which he sent in to the Old Water-colour Society were rejected, but 'The Farm,' a view near Arundel, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1859, and the three drawings which he sent to the Old Watercolour Society in 1860, led to his election as an associate. He became a full member of the society in 1862, after a period of probation of unexampled shortness, and remained from that date onwards one of the most indefatigable, as well as the most popular, contributors to the society's exhibitions, in which over three hundred of his drawings appeared.

His subjects were principally studies of roadside and woodland scenery with rustic figures, studies made for the most part in his favourite county of Surrey, varied with sketches made on his frequent visits to the continent. He never abandoned the habit of excessive finish which he had learnt from his practice as an engraver and draughtsman of vignettes, with the result that his work in water-colours, remaining at the end of forty years much what it had been at the outset, became old-fashioned in the opinion of most artists and critics, though it never lost favour with the general public or failed to command a good price, whether at exhibitions or in the saleroom. He did not use the broad transparent washes of the older water-colour painters, but painted largely in body-colour, retouching his work with careful stippling till it was finished to his satisfaction.

So in his choice of subjects he showed a taste for small and pretty scenes rather than wild or spacious landscapes. He was skilled in composition, and was strongly opposed to literal transcripts from nature made without selection. For a time he painted also in oils, and he exhibited fourteen oil-paintings at the Royal Academy between 1869 and 1877, after which he abandoned oils altogether. In 1876 he was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Berlin, he occasionally etched reproductions of his own pictures for publication ('Crossing the Brook,' 1882 ; 'Home, Sweet Home,' 1891), and a plate etched by him after Frederick Walker, 'Driving Geese, Cookham,' was published in 1887. Many of his drawings have been reproduced by chromo-lithography. A series of thirty-five lithographs of views of Brittany was privately printed in 1878, and 'Some Places of Note in England' (twenty-five drawings transferred to stone, with descriptive notes by the artist) appeared in 1888.

In his early days Foster had lived at St. John's Wood. In 1861, he removed to Witley, Surrey, where he purchased some land and built a house for himself (The Hill) in 1863. Here he formed a fine collection of books, china, English water-colours, and other pictures, including a series of seven paintings of 'St. George' by Burne-Jones. The house and the collections which it contained were sold in 1894. Foster had a large circle of friends, especially among artists; Frederick Walker [q. v.] was one of his most constant companions and guests at Witley, and exercised some influence upon his figure-painting.

Foster died at Weybridge on 27 March 1899, and was buried on 1 April at Witley. He married, first, in 1850, his cousin Ann, daughter of Robert Spence of North Shields, by whom he had five children, the second of whom is the water-colour painter and illustrator, William Foster. His first wife died in 1859. He married secondly, in 1864, Frances, daughter of Dawson Watson of Sedburgh, and sister of the water-colour painter, James Dawson Watson.

A portrait, engraved on wood, was published in 1896, as the frontispiece to Pictures of Rustic Landscape, by Birket Foster.

[The Art Annual for 1890 (Christmas number of the Art Journal), by Marcus B. Huish, with portrait, illustrations, and list of books illustrated by Birket Foster; Athenaeum, 1 April 1899; Morning Post, 29 March 1899; Daily Telegraph, 29 March 1899; Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement, Foster, Myles Birket, by Campbell Dodgson] div

FOSTER, MYLES BIRKET (1825–1899), English painter, was born at North Shields. At the age of sixteen he entered the workshop of Ebenezer Landells, a wood engraver, with whom he worked for six years as an illustrative draughtsman, devoting himself mainly to landscape. During the succeeding fifteen years he became famous as a prolific and accomplished illustrator, but about 1861, abandoned illustration for painting, and gained wide popularity by his pictures, chiefly in water colours, of landscapes and rustic subjects, with figures, mainly of children. He was elected in 1860 associate and in 1862 full member of the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours. His work is memorable for its delicacy and minute finish, and for its daintiness and pleasantness of sentiment.

[See Birket Foster, his Life and Work (extra number of the Art Journal) by Marcus B. Huish (1890), an interesting sketch; and Birket Foster, R.W.S., by H. M. Cundall (London, 1906), a very complete and fully illustrated biography; Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 10, 1911.] div

Myles Birket Foster was a member of an old north-country Quaker family. He was born at North Shields on February 4, 1825, the youngest, but one of seven children. His father removed to London when he was but five years of age, so that his early youth was spent away from the district of his birth. His grandfather was a naval officer of renown who was acquainted with Thomas Bewick the engraver, but Birket seems to have been the only member of the family who had inclinations towards art. Birket is said to have been able to draw before he could speak, but whether this was true or not it is certain that at very tender years he was able to make quite a creditable sketch, and the local renown of Bewick, and the traditions as to his friendship with the grandfather of young Foster helped to enkindle in the lad the strongest desire that he too might become a great artist.

At the first schools to which he went, those kept by Quakers at Tottenham and at Hitchin, he was taught drawing, and then later on he had special lessons from an intelligent master named Parry; but his education terminated before he was sixteen, and the question of a profession was before him. It was at first decided that he should be sent to a steel engraver named Stone, but as the man committed suicide on the day that the articles were signed that could not be accomplished, and eventually Foster was sent to the studio of Ebenezer Landells the wood engraver, a man who had known Bewick, and was therefore of the greatest importance to Foster.

Here he worked for a good many years doing drawings for Punch, Punch's Almanack, the Illustrated London News, and its Annual Almanac, and many of the illustrated books of the day, notably one by S. C. Hall on Ireland. It was very little actual engraving that Foster did, as his work in drawing on the blocks was so acceptable that his time was fully occupied with it, and he himself was always ready to add to his knowledge by steady work out-of- doors, or by sketcliing events which took place with a view of using them for illustrations.

He left Landells in 1846, starting on his own account, and worked as a book illustrator for Vizetelly. His first great success was in illustrating Evangeline, and after that he was sent up the Rhine that he might make drawings for Hyperion, and for a book on the famous river itself. From that time to 1859, he illustrated many of the most notable works of the day, especially of poetry, but at length he determined to give up black and white work and take to more congenial labour in colour.

His first work in the Royal Academy represented a farm near Arundel, and was hung in 1859; in the following year he was an Associate of the Old Water-Colour Society, and attained full rank as a member two years afterwards. The death of his father in 1861, was not altogether a loss to Foster, for a confusion having arisen between his name and that of his parent; an obituary account of the artist was issued praising him in no measured terms, and lamenting the loss caused to British art by so untimely a decease. This was at once, of course, contradicted, but the critics had already spoken, and the reputation of Foster gained in strength by this strange occurrence.

In 1862 Foster settled down in Surrey, eventually building a house at Witley, which became a most popular resort for his artist friends, and in which he resided for many years. His work was always worthy of respect, conscientious and pleasing, and although it ever bore traces of his earlier practice of black and white drawing, and was as elaborate sometimes in its stippling as though it was intended for a block, yet this fault gradually became less and less, and his work assumed a stronger and broader character. He had a great love for the rustic cottage scenes of Surrey, and painted them with a daintiness and loving skill which few have excelled. His greatest triumphs in water-colour were obtained in the country side, in the winding lane, the hedgerow, with its flowers; the cottage, the hamlet, or the village, and he painted all these over and over again with a careful attention to details, a graceful daintiness and a freshness of colour which invariably caused the pictures to be popular and attractive. There was a sweetness and a gentleness as has been well said about his work which redeemed it, and although it was monotonous it never failed to be pleasant and thoroughly English.

His home at Witley was adorned by the work of all his friends. Burne Jones painted on the staircase, Rossetti adorned the dining-room, Keene devised some of the stained glass, Morris and Hunt, Linnell, Walker, Pinwell, Houghton and Lewis, all had their share in the decoration, and the result was very remarkable and of great beauty. Towards the close of his life Foster had to leave this place, and settled in failing health, and with his mental powers at times over-clouded, at Weybridge. There he died March 27, 1899, at the age of seventy-three, having made a very important name in English water-colour art. He was in earlier days fond of etching, and produced some notable plates. He also worked in lithography, and whatever he did was marked by the same restful charm, daintiness and grace which are the main characteristics of his well-known work in colour. An Art Annual respecting him was written by Mr. Huish, and issued by the Art Journal in 1890. G. C. W.

Bryan's dictionary of painters and engravers, 1903 div

Foster, Birket. (Brit.) Bom in 1825. Was an apprentice of E. Landell, an English wood-engraver, devoting himself to thai particular branch of art for some years, and furnishing illustrations for Longfellow's Evangeline, his first important work, in 1850; later, he engraved the plates for The Task, Herbert's Poems, Wordsworth, Goldsmith, Gray's Elegy, Beattie's Minstrel, Pleasures of Hope, Poets of the Nineteenth Century, Ancient Mariner, Old English Ballads, and other fine editions of standard British and American works, always with marked success.

About 1860, he turned his attention to drawing in water-colors, exhibiting a picture in the Royal Academy, which attracted much attention. He was elected an Associate of the Society of Painters in Water-Colors in 1859, and a full member three years later. His pleasant rural scenes of a homely character, devoted almost exclusively to the portrayal of child-life, have been very popular, and very extensively reproduced in chromos, photographs, and engravings. Among the better known of his subjects are,
"Nutting,"
"The Bird's-Nest,"
"In the Hay-Field,"
"Little Anglers,"
"The Busy Bee,"
"Sailing the Boat,"
"The Dipping-Place,"
"The Mill,"
"Cows in the Pool,"
"A Green Lane,"
"The Capture of a Thirty-two Pounder".

An English landscape of Birket Foster's, belonging to William T. Blodgett, was in the National Academy, New York, in 1870.

"Birket Foster has indeed, both in his drawing and in his designs for the wood-engraver, carried suavity and grace to the very highest point to which they can be carried without falling into effeminacy, as he has pushed delicacy of execution to a pitch beyond which it seems impossible without pettiness and loss of unity." -- Tom Taylor.

"Inasmuch as Birket Foster's pictures recall to our memories the dear remembrances of our own childhood, it has done us more good to gaze upon them than to have placed before our eyes the grandest piece of historical painting, or the finest example of mural decoration ever conceived by the subtlest artist. The works of no living artist have been so extensively copied as have been the works of Birket Foster." -- London Art Journal, July, 1877.

"Birket Foster made certain contributions, though not many, to the early numbers of Punch, but they were of a character which showed him to be eminently unfitted for the task of delineating facetia. He did not suffer many years to elapse, however, before his name became famous in a very different branch of art to that which Punch would have marked out for him." -- Hodder's Memoirs of my Time.

Artists of the Nineteenth Century and their Works, Clara Erskine Clement and Laurence Hutton, 1879.

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