Myles Birkett Foster



Artist's Biography & Works For Sale


Myles Birket (or Birkett) Foster is one of the most celebrated Victorian illustrators and watercolourists. His charming rural idylls and idealised scenes of country life, meticulously detailed and finely executed, were hugely popular in his day and continue to appeal to a modern audience.

Born in North Shields, in northeast England, Birket Foster was brought up as a Quaker. The family moved to London in 1830, where his father ran a successful beer-bottling business. Young Myles initially joined the family firm, but his talent for art prompted his father to secure an apprenticeship for him with the well-known wood engraver Ebenezer Landells (1808-1860). His training was rigorous, and he learnt his craft well, assisting in the production of woodblocks for such publications as Punch and the Illustrated London News.

After completing his apprenticeship, Birket Foster worked as a draughtsman with publisher Henry Vizetelly (1820-1894) and began to develop his skills in book illustration. Then, aged twenty one, he set up as a self-employed illustrator. His poetry books were a particular success, and he also continued to produce work for the Illustrated London News, with rural subject matter his speciality.

In the 1850s, he taught himself watercolour painting. The medium suited him well and his reputation rapidly grew. By the 1860s he was a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy and he was elected an Associate of the Old Watercolour Society (which later became the Royal Watercolour Society). He travelled extensively, painting views of picturesque locations such as the Scottish Highlands, the Rhine Valley, Switzerland and the Mediterranean. In 1863, he published his celebrated Pictures of English Landscape (with poems by Tom Taylor), a volume commissioned by the Dalziel brothers, George Dalziel (1815-1902) and Edward Dalziel (1817-1905) to showcase both Birket Foster’s art and their own wood engraving prowess.

Wealthy and successful, Birket Foster had a stylish house built in Witley, Surrey. He contributed to the design himself, and incorporated decorative elements and furnishings by his friends William Morris (1834-1896) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). ‘The Hill’, as it was known, became a focus for the local artistic community (which included Helen Allingham (1848-1926) and Kate Greenaway (1846-1901)) and many well-known artists of the day visited him there. He hosted huge parties and laid on elaborate musical and theatrical entertainments that would often involve the whole village.

It was in Witley that Birket Foster produced the body of work for which he has become so famous, his beautifully crafted highly sentimentalised rustic scenes (mostly featuring the surrounding Surrey countryside). This was a time of rapidly encroaching industrialisation, and the unspoiled, idyllic version of England that was portrayed in his art greatly appealed to the public. Such was the popularity of his pictures, it is said that dealers used to race each other to his house from Witley Station in order to have first pick of the work as it went on sale. His much-loved imagery was even used by Cadbury to adorn the lids of their chocolate boxes.

Myles Birket Foster died in 1899 and is buried at All Saints’ Church in Witley.