Myles Birket Foster (1825-1899)

Illustration to Keats Ode to a Nightingale

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.

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

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