Foster, Myles Birket (DNB01)

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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 Landseer. 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; Athenæum, 1 April 1899; Morning Post, 29 March 1899; Daily Telegraph, 29 March 1899.]

C. D.