- Museum number
A cottage garden; a woman bending over vegetables in a garden, a washing line and dilapidated shed at left, a thatched cottage behind
Watercolour, touched with bodycolour
- Production date
Height: 166 millimetres
Width: 244 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- In the latter part of the 19th Century, when urbanisation and industrialisation were altering the face of the English landscape, many artists turned to the countryside in an attempt to re-capture the lost English idyll. Artists including Frederick Walker, John William North and George John Pinwell came to be known as members of the Idyllic School thanks to their idealised images of life in the country, which denied the steady encroachment of industrialisation. This approach was met with mixed reviews. In 1882, the writer Richard Jefferies complained that ‘So many pictures and so many illustrations seem to proceed on the assumption that the steam-plough and reaping-machine do not exist, that the landscape contains nothing but what it did a hundred years ago. These sketches are beautiful, but they lack the force of truth and reality.’ (Quoted Wilcox, p. 51) Like Birket Foster, these artists had begun their careers as illustrators. Scott Wilcox and Christopher Newall suggest that this background in designing pleasing subjects that were intended to make gift books attractive and marketable was one of the reasons so many of them came to be part of this artistic trend. Indeed, John Ruskin had commented on seeing the proofs of Birket Foster’s illustrations for ‘The English Landscape’ (published 1863), ‘They are superb specimens of the kind of Landscape which you have rendered deservedly popular, and very charming in every respect. I wish, however, you would devote some of your wonderful powers of execution to engraving Landscape which should be better than ‘charming’ and which would educate the public taste as well as meet it.’ (Quoted Newall & Wilcox, p. 116)
Though Birket Foster is not specifically seen as belonging to the Idyllic School, his works reflect the same interest in both close observation of the rural life, as well as a certain denial of the modern age. The present drawing is a perfect example of this approach. The thatch on the cottage, built up with Birket Foster’s heavy stippling technique, shows signs of disrepair, as does the tumble-down shed on the left-hand side of the composition. However, the crucial impression is of the abundance of home-grown food: leeks, and cabbages sprout up in rich greens, and the cottage is bedecked with climbing flowers. The old woman is shown reaping the fruit of her labour, in a manner similar to Frederick Walker’s ‘Amateur’ or William Small’s ‘Digging Potatoes’ [see 1954,0508.21 and 1997,0712.112 respectively]. As Anna Gruetzner Robins points out, the cabbage was an ubiquitous motif in late 19th century painting of rural life (Gruetzner Robins, p. 94). This was perhaps due to its use in agricultural theories of crop rotation, as well as its hardy nature, which made it a sensible economic choice in the market garden or family plot. (The turnip can be seen to hold a similar symbolic position in the landscapes of the late 18th Century at a time when there were analogous fears as to the future of the countryside after the enclosure laws were enacted. Gainsborough’s peasants take turnips to market; Turner’s labourers dig them up; Constable painted people ‘Flailing turnip heads’.) Birket Foster thus creates a picturesque composition that speaks of flourishing, sustainable rural life, far removed from the grime of Victorian factories and the reality of the poverty under which the inhabitants of such cottages lived (a dwelling such as the one pictured might hold up to three families).
C. Newall & S. Wilcox (eds.), Victorian Landscape Watercolour, New York, 1993.
A. Gruetzner Robins, ‘“South Country” and other imagined places’, Places of the Mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850-1950, K. Sloan (ed.), London, 2017.
The curatorial comments on the watercolours by Myles Birket Foster have been written by Olivia Ghosh, Anne Christopherson Fellow in the Department of Prints and Drawings, June 2017.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1985, BM, British Landscape Watercolours 1600-1860, no.186
2004 July-Aug, Haslemere Educational Museum, 'Myles Birket Foster'
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- This item has an uncertain or incomplete provenance for the years 1933-45. The British Museum welcomes information and assistance in the investigation and clarification of the provenance of all works during that era.
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number