Myles Birket Foster
Life beyond Elmbridge
In the opinion of the Dalziel Brothers who did fine engravings for his drawings, Myles Birket Foster '...stands as one of England's most popular landscape draughtsmen and as a painter in watercolour of great distinction.' This accomplished artist showed promise at a very young age as illustrated by the Leeds Mercury at the time of his death which explained that at just seven years old he astonished his family by '....making an excellent copy of a tailpiece in the natural history of the celebrated Northumbrian artist Thomas Bewick...' A career as an artist was not, however, his parents' ambition for their talented son.
Myles Birket Foster was born into a prosperous family in North Shields on 4 February 1825, the fifth son of his parents. The Fosters were among the earliest disciples of George Fox the founder of the Quakers. They moved to London when Myles Birket Foster was a small child and established M. B. Foster & Sons which became the largest firm of bottlers in the world. After a largely Quaker education Birket Foster had a brief and unsuccessful sojourn in the family business before his father secured a place for him in the studio of the engraver Ebenezer Landells who had been a pupil of the renowned Thomas Bewick.
Landells soon recognised his student's original talent as a draughtsman and the young man drew primarily on wood for engravings. Before he was twenty he had sketched for the first editions of 'Punch' and for the Illustrated London News for which he was paid 18d each for some of his initial small sketches. Edmund Evans, a lifelong friend, engraved many of his drawings and they worked and travelled together for an Illustrated London News series, 'The watering places of England.' A commission from the engraver and publisher Henry Vizetelly for the Boys Country Year Book (1847) had a significant impact on Birket Foster's career leading to him becoming the most sought after poetry illustrator of the day. In 1850 he organised for Birket Foster to work on H. W. Longfellow's Evangeline the success of which set a fashion for Foster's style. In the same year he married his cousin Anne Spence (1825 - 1859) and found in her a great supporter of his ambition to be a painter. Throughout the 1850s he enjoyed enormous success as an illustrator: The Athenaeum's critic judged his work on Evangeline to '....have a picturesque grace and elegance...' and in 1851 the trustees of the British Museum selected Christmas with the Poets (1851), devised and engraved by Vizetelly and illustrated by Birket Foster to be displayed at the Great Exhibition in the same year as being exemplary of contemporary illustration and printing. Commissions followed to illustrate the work of Sir Walter Scott, Milton and Shakespeare; his reputation was established and he became the most sought after poetry illustrator of his time. Birket Foster's skills were also used to produce pictorial guides such as those published by A & C Black for which he travelled to Wales, Scotland and the Lakes.
His true ambition remained to be a watercolour artist and his talent in this area was recognised in 1860 when he was made an associate of the Society of Painters in Water Colours. Sadly, his wife did not live to see him receive this accolade as she had died of tuberculosis in the previous year. The couple had five children. Birket Foster remarried in August 1864; his new wife, sixteen years his junior, was Frances Watson (1841-1921) sister of the water-colourist John Watson Dawson. His success in his preferred medium was rapid and amazing. '...commissions for pictures pour in and it is far more delightful working in colour...' he wrote to his brother-in-law on 19 February 1860. Birket Foster acknowledged that his style was ' very peculiar ' but through the liberal use of body colour (admixture of white) and a dry finely stippled technique instead of broad washes he had forged a new style which appealed widely to the general public. This indicates an awareness of the watercolour techniques of his contemporaries William Holman Hunt and John Frederick Lewis. His work was considered to be Pre-Raphaelite in detail. In 1862 he was made a full member of the Society of Painters in Water Colours and published Pictures of English Landscape engraved by the Dalziel brothers. In a letter to the engravers John Ruskin described the bookplates as 'peculiarly good of their class - rich, gracefully composed, exquisite book illustrations'. Praise indeed!
Birket Foster's watercolours inspired by English rural life, albeit in an idyllic form, proved even more popular than his illustrations. Each new work was awaited eagerly and the advent of chromolithography (the process of producing multi-colour prints) in the 1870s spread the popularity of his work to those who could not afford the paintings as did Cadbury's use of his images on their chocolate boxes from the 1860s onwards. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s Birket Foster travelled to Italy, Spain and France and a more topographical and architectural theme appears in his paintings. He was commissioned by Charles Seely MP for a fee of £5000 to make fifty watercolours of Venice and to do so made several visits to the city between 1871 and 1876. Birket Foster was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy between 1869 and 1877 and was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Berlin in 1874. His tours at home were recorded in Lithographs in Some places of Note in England in 1888. Birket Foster rarely painted in oils and when he did so usually for exhibition at the Royal Academy.
Life in Elmbridge
Birket Foster moved to Surrey in 1863; he built a large Tudor style house (demolished 1953), 'The Hill', on an elevated site at Witley, near Godalming. Set in twenty acres he designed the house himself and it was one of the first to be decorated with wallpapers and tapestries by William Morris's company. Edward Burne-Jones designed stained glass, tiles and furniture. The Surrey countryside provided the inspiration for many of his paintings. Birket Foster became the centre of a vibrant artistic community which included George Eliot, Kate Greenaway and Helen Allingham. He built up a fine collection of British art including works by J. M. W. Turner, William Henry Hunt and John Frederick Lewis. For over thirty years Birket Foster was a prominent and popular character in Witley laying on theatrical entertainments and throwing enormous Christmas parties. In 1893, because of ill health, he decided to move to a smaller property in Weybridge and sold The Hill for £10,000.
Birket Foster bought 'Braeside', The Heath, in Weybridge; it was the last house in Hanger Hill just two minutes from the railway station, ten minutes from the town and set in one acre of land. He loved to walk, read and collect books of which he had a distinguished collection including copies of the four folio editions of Shakespeare. Painting in watercolour continued to be his great passion and the Winter Exhibition of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1896 included 'On the Canal at Weybridge' painted while he lived in the town. He died on 27 March 1899 and his Times obituary (29 March 1899) records that '......up to the very last he continued to produce those dainty little drawings which had commanded the admiration of a very large circle for nearly half a century.' His work was criticised for portraying an idealised view of rural life but admired for its detail and the skill of its execution. Birket Foster's death was much lamented and was recorded in newspapers throughout the country including the Glasgow Herald, the Bristol Mercury & Daily Post and the North-Eastern Daily Gazette (Middlesborough). In June 1899 when three of his paintings which had been stolen from a gallery in Edinburgh were recovered in Southsea many visitors arrived at the Police Station to view them!
Birket Foster's funeral took place on 1 April 1899 at All Saints Church, Witley; the polished oak coffin was almost hidden by wreaths as it rested in the Chancel before the service. He was buried in Witley which had been his home for so many years. His house in Weybridge was eventually sold and became the Braeside Hotel which proudly advertised its link to the popular artist. It ceased trading in the 1970s and a block of flats 'Coniston Court' was built on the site. Birket Foster was one of those fortunate people, who are able to pursue an occupation they love, achieve personal fulfilment and both critical and material success. He left an estate valued at £35,323 14s 4d ( spending worth in 2005 of £2,015,571.27 ) and his work is to be found in over fifty collections including the Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, the Birmingham City Art Gallery, the Manchester City Art Gallery, the Tyne & Wear Museums and York Art Gallery. Birket Foster's assessment of his life was typically modest, 'Mine has been a very uneventful life' he wrote in 1895, 'but one that my art has made very pleasant to me.'
- Advertisement for Birket Foster by Jan Reynolds, pub. by Batsford Books, London, Local Studies Section, Elmbridge Museum
- 'He perpetuated the beauty of Surrey', Memoirs of Birket Foster, RWS by Frederick S. Bagley, Surrey Herald, 28 March 1958, Local Studies Section, Elmbridge Museum
- Advertisement for Braeside Hotel, Weybridge, Local Studies Section, Elmbridge Museum
- Nineteenth Century British Library Newspapers, Surrey Libraries [www.surreycc.gov.uk/libraries]
- The Leeds Mercury, Wed., Mar. 29, 1899, Issue 19027 (Articles 9 & 10)
- all other references to regional newspapers
- Jan Reynolds, 'Foster, (Myles) Birket (1825-1899), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2007 [www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/9965, accessed 9 Aug 2011]
- www.sphinxfineart.com (Myles Birket Foster 1825 - Tynemouth - 1899 - Weybridge, Surrey)
- The Times Digital Archive, Surrey Libraries [www.surreycc.gov.uk/libraries]
- The Old Watercolour Society, The Times, Thursday, 30 April, 1863; pg 12; Issue 24546; col. D
- Mr Birket Foster's Works, The Times, Monday, 27 February, 1882; pg. 4; Issue 30441; col A
- Death of Mr Birket Foster, The Times, Wednesday, 29 March, 1899; pg. 11; Issue 35789; col A
- Court Circular, The Times, Monday, 3 April, 1899; pg. 7; Issue 35793; col E