Myles Birket Foster, RWS (1825-1899) Myles Birket Foster was one of the most popular artists of the Victorian period, achieving success first as an illustrator and then as an exhibition watercolourist. In both disciplines, he conveyed a gentle naturalism through mastery of technique.
Myles Birket Foster was born at North Shields, Northumberland, on 4 February 1825, the youngest of seven children of a Quaker brewer. When he was five years old, the family moved to London, and his father founded M B Foster & Sons, the largest firm of bottlers in the world. His artistic talents were encouraged at two Quaker boarding schools: Grove House in Tottenham and Isaac Brown’s Academy in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, where he received lessons from Charles Parry. However, despite his desire to be a landscape painter, he had to join the family business, and was allowed to leave only after he had a serious accident with a broken bottle.
At the age of 16, Foster began an apprenticeship in wood engraving with the Northumbrian, Ebenezer Landells, a one-time apprentice of a Foster family friend, Thomas Bewick.
Landells soon recognised Foster’s talents as a draughtsman, and allowed him to make designs for cutting, among which was a beautiful series of initial letters for Punch (1841-43), and others for The Illustrated London News. From 1846, he worked independently as a black and white illustrator, notably of poetry, and established close collaborations with the engraver and printer, Edmund Evans, and the engraver and publisher, Henry Vizetelly. With the first, he travelled across England for a series on watering places for The Illustrated London News. For the second, he illustrated Longfellow’s Evangeline (1849) and Hyperion (1853), among other titles – developing the latter project with Vizetelly during their journey down the Rhine in 1852. A similar journey, in 1854, provided material for Foster’s own album, The Rhine and its Picturesque Journey, published in 1856.
In 1850, Foster had married his cousin, Anne Spence, and settled in St John’s Wood. Together, they would have five children, including the painter and ornithologist, William Foster (1853-1924). She encouraged her husband’s ambition to paint, and he responded by producing landscapes and rustic scenes in the Home Counties and on the Continent. He even developed a flexible stippled technique that enabled him to become one of the few artists to transfer the medium of watercolour successfully to large surfaces. Anne died of tuberculosis in 1859, just a year before he succeeded in establishing himself as a painter. He was elected an Associate of the Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1860 and a full member in 1862, when he published his culminating achievement as an illustrator, Pictures of English Landscapes. Among his later works were oils that he exhibited at the Royal Academy. As late as 1895, he would be elected to the membership of the Berlin Academy.
In the early 1860s, Foster built The Hill, a Tudor-style house in Witley, Surrey, which was decorated by his artist friends, including members of the Pre-Raphaelite firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. Having settled in, he embarked on a second marriage, in 1864, to Frances Watson, the sister of the watercolourist, John Dawson Watson. Their many visitors included the painters, William Quiller Orchardson and Frederick Walker. In 1893, ill health forced him to sell much of his impressive collection of pictures and move to a smaller house in Weybridge. He would die there on 27 March 1899.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including The Courtauld Gallery and the V&A; and Tyne & Wear Museums.
Further reading: Jan Reynolds, Birket Foster, London: Batsford, 1984; Jan Reynolds, ‘Foster, (Myles) Birket (1825-1899), H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 20, pages 495-496; Scott Wilcox, ‘Foster, Myles Birket (b Tynemouth, Northumb., 4 Feb 1825; d Weybridge, Surrey, 27 March 1899)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 11, page 331