- Museum number
Illustration to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 'Hyperion', 1853; a man and woman seated in a room with table and crucifix, within a border
Graphite and grey ink, touched with white
- Production date
Height: 180 millimetres
Width: 108 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- This present drawing is representative of the first stage in Birket Foster’s career; he began as an illustrator in the studio of the engraver Ebenezer Landells, one of the original founders of the satirical magazine Punch. Through this connection Birket Foster came to work for publications such as the ‘Illustrated London News’. His work proved highly popular and led to a number of commissions from the engraver and publisher Henry Vizetelly. It was thanks to Vizetelly that Birket Foster was engaged to provide the illustrations for publisher David Bogue’s 1850 publication of Henry Longfellow’s epic poem ‘Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie’. This was followed by further commissions to produce illustrations for Longfellow’s poetry (‘Voices of the Night, the Seaside and the Fireside’ in 1851, and ‘Longfellow’s Poetical Works’ in 1852.)
In 1852 Vizetelly suggested that Bogue produce an edition of Longfellow’s ‘Hyperion’ with ‘engravings of the different scenes in which the hero of the romance figures, from sketches to be taken by Mr Birket Foster on the spot.’ [Vizetelly, pp. 365-66] Although ‘Hyperion’ was popularly seen as a romance, it was in fact a fictionalised account of a tour taken by Longfellow along the Rhine, into which he wove various local legends and a loose love story between the American hero Paul Flemming and Englishwoman Mary Ashburton. To produce the illustrations Vizetelly and Birket Foster retraced Longfellow’s footsteps, taking the trouble to locate along the way the exact locations of scenes in the story. This present drawing illustrates a scene from Book I, chapter two ‘The Christ of Andernach’, appearing on page ten of the first edition. Flemming has just started his journey on the Rhine, and has stopped in the town of Andernach, where he sees a visceral, almost grotesque sculpture of Jesus on the cross. He sits down that evening in his boarding house and mentions this to an old woman knitting there (the main two figures in the present sketch). She tells him of a miraculous stranger who had been wandering Andernach at night helping the townsfolk by mending their roofs, walls and boats. One day a poor woman and her baby stopped under the sculpture of Jesus that Flemming had so disliked. She prayed for shelter, and before her the figure on the cross came alive – the same stranger who had been seen around the town. This story is depicted in the upper right hand of this drawing, where we see the crucifix and the form of the woman and child beneath it praying. The final version of the book included nearly 100 engravings after Birket Foster’s drawings, about which the London newspaper the ‘Examiner’ commented ‘several figures are introduced with good effect, cleverly grouped and … showing good humour’ [5 February 1853]. Birket Foster continued to illustrate books until 1861, after which he turned his attention almost exclusively to watercolour.
J. Reynolds, ‘Birket Foster’, Frome & London, 1984.
H. Vizetelly, ‘Glances Back through Seventy Years’, London, 1893.
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
- Associated titles
Associated Title: Hyperion
- 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