Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Edward Foster: Part 5, A good hand at spinning a yarn

Image © and courtesy of Virginia Silvester
Edward Foster, Derby, 8 November 1864

When I started to research the life of Edward Foster, silhouettist and book publisher of Derby, there was no shortage of material on which to draw. As described in Part 4, the accounts of this man's remarkable life continued to grow throughout the century and a half following his death, the latest article appearing in Derbyshire Life just two years ago. During the course of his reputed 102 years there appeared to be little that Mr Foster did not accomplish. Born of noble parentage, reduced by circumstance, he had a notable military career, became an accomplished miniature painter, with royal appointments, was an inventor, then became a silhouette artist, capturing the profiles of many eminent persons of the day, and finally was a compiler, publisher and distributer of educational charts and texts.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Profile of Thomas Marseille of Canterbury, by Edward Foster, 1822

His career as a prolific painter of profiles, which I covered in Part 2 of this series, was relatively straightforward to document. A series of newspaper advertisements and trade directory entries from 1809 to 1833 is supported by an impressive body of extant signed work, often with trade labels, an example of which I even managed to purchase for myself (pictured above).

Image © and courtesy of Google Books
Foster's Elementary French Grammar and Exercises, 1839

Then in the late 1830s and 1840s Foster and his son Edward Ward Foster (1819-1851) together compiled and published a number of educational texts and charts, discussed in part 3. After his son's death in 1851 Edward senior continued peddling scholastic charts throughout the United Kingdom, also easily verified through newspaper advertorials.

Image © and courtesy of
20th Regiment of Foot uniforms

His earlier life, however, proved to be far more difficult to corroborate. Although the events described in the reports of his military service did take place, details of his actual connection to them have been particularly elusive. Much has been made of his royal patronage, but I have not been able to unearth a single piece of contemporary evidence that Foster was ever a miniature painter to the Royal Family. Besides the single purported self portrait used to illustrate a 1907 article which I reproduced in Part 4, I have yet to find unequivocal evidence of a single miniature portrait, as opposed to a profile, painted by him.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of
from Derbyshire Gatherings by Joseph Barlow Robinson, 1866

With the first contemporary evidence of his activities only to be found in June 1809, when he was already reputedly in his mid-40s, I then began to wonder about the veracity of the stories concerning the years prior to his establishment as a silhouette artist. To this end, I carried out a comparison of the accounts which have appeared. Most, if not all, of the material in reports about Foster's early years written in the 20th century has most likely been taken from a chapter in Robinson's 1866 book Derbyshire Gatherings (PDF), with the usual slight embellishments that are expected with time. Although his sources are not stated, Robinson, in turn, appears to have based his account mostly on the text of a speech by Henry Adams at the "conratulatory dinner" to Foster in November 1862, probably supplemented by newspaper and other reports of the period.

Image © British Library and courtesy of Gale CENGAGE Learning
A Veteran, The Derby Mercury, 7 May 1862
Click image to enlarge

The earliest of these reports that I've been able to find - at least in the 19th century British Library Newspapers selection presented online by Gale - is an undated article from Aris's Birmingham Gazette reprinted in The Derby Mercury on 7 May 1862. While primarily a promotion for his "admirable chronological charts," it states that Mr Foster will complete his 100th year in a few months" and refers to his military service, but strangely makes no mention whatsoever of his artisitic career. One very definitely gets the impression, on reading it, that Foster provided the information to the Gazette reporter himself. Likewise, much of the biographic material used by Henry Adams in his speech is likely to have been put forward by Foster who, as I demonstrated in Part 1, was particularly adept at self promotion using a variety of media.

The stories of Edward Foster's family and pre-silhouette years can be separated into the following "events," each of which will be dealt with separately:
  • Noble ancestry, birth, numerous wives and children, including:
    a. birth at All Saints, Derby on 8 November 1762,
    b. descendant of Duke of Norfolk,
    c. centenarian grandparents,
    d. father was land steward to Sit Robert Burdett, Baronet of Foremark,
    e. married 5 times and had 17 children.
  • 2. Entered Derby militia, aged 17, c.1780
  • 3. Military service as junior officer in 20th Regiment of Foot, c.1781-1805, including:
    a. under Marquis Cornwallis in latter part of American Revolution, c.1781,
    b. under Duke of York in Holland, c.1793-4,
    c. under Sir Ralph Abercrombie in Egypt, 1801,
    d. at Deal/Walmer, Kent, c.1801-5,
    e. resigned on ther day Nelson died, 21 October 1805.
  • 4. Involved with "Ragged schools."
  • 5. Appointed miniature painter to the Royal Family, with rooms at Round Tower, Windsor Castle.
  • 6. Invented and patented machine for taking profiles.

Birth in 1762, noble ancestry, family

Much of the legend which surrounds Edward Foster derives from his longevity. His claims of a great age can be traced somewhat earlier than the 1862 article, with his stated ages in the 1851 and 1861 Census records being 90 and 99 respectively. Reports in The York Herald (27 April 1861) and The Hull Packet (3 May 1861) also gave his age as 99 years. Unfortunately, I've as yet been unable to locate him in the 1841 Census.

Image courtesy of Frank Wattleworth
Baptism: Edward Foster, 13 November 1774, Egginton
Click image to enlarge

I was hoping that finding a record of his baptism would be a relatively straightforward matter, since the International Genealogical Index (IGI) has good, albeit not complete, coverage of the parish registers of Derby town, as well as the non-conformist registers. Disappointingly there was no sign of a suitable baptism in the IGI, and a trawl of microfilms of the parish registers for All Saints, St Werburgh, St Alkmund, St Michael and St Peter between 1760 and 1765, kindly carried out for me by Frank Wattleworth, also turned up empty. Spreading the net (and the fishing euphemisms) a little wider, both location- and time-wise, produced a baptism for an Edward Foster on 13 November 1774 at Egginton, a parish seven miles to the south-west of Derby, the son of Edward and Anne Foster.

Image courtesy of Frank Wattleworth
Marriage: Edward Foster & Ann Haward, 7 June 1774, Egginton
Click image to enlarge

Further research reveals that Edward Foster senior's wife, whom he married at Egginton in 1774, was Ann Haward, Heyward, Hayward or Haywood (but never Howard), baptised on 25 February 1753 at Egginton, one of six children of Robert and Ann Heyward. This is almost certainly the family of our Edward Foster, given the number of coincidental facts.

Ann Haywood senior was buried at Egginton on 12 September 1798. Her children were born between 1750 and 1763 so, given the oldest likely age of child bearing in the 18th century was about 45. Her earliest possible date of birth was therefore c.1718, and she is unlikely to have been more than 81 years old when she died, a far cry from the 103 years claimed by Robinson.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Henry Howard (1628-1684), 6th Duke of Norfolk

If her husband Robert was of a similar age, even give or take a couple of decades, the only Duke of Norfolk of that era to have been producing children was the 6th Duke, who died in 1683/84. The 7th, 8th and 9th Dukes died without issue, and the 10th was only born in 1720. The chances of his being a Howard of that family are, in my view, very slim indeed!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Foremarke Hall, 1805, seat of Sir Robert Burdett, 5th Baronet

Was Edward Foster senior ever land steward to Sir Robert Burdett, 4th Baronet, of Foremark Hall, Derbyshire? After all, the dates seem to fit, and Foremarke Hall is only four miles to the east of Egginton. I believe he was probably born in nearby Doveridge in 1748, so would have been in his mid-20s by the time Edward junior was born. In 1791, Burdett's land steward in Foremark was Robert C. Greaves, Esq. (Universal British Directory, 1791), and by 1821-22 William Crabtree was performing that duty (Pigot's Derbyshire Directory, 1821-1822). However, Foster's father may well have been the incumbent at some other time between those dates. This awaits further research, perhaps in the extensive collection of Burdett papers at the Derbyshire Record Office. A quick look at the catalogue contents, for example, reveals the names of further agents John Brand (1783), Benjamin Redfern (1783-1789) and Robert Banton (1808-1816), but no sign of Foster.

In the celebratory speech given by Adams in 1862, which I think we can now assume was based largely on information supplied by Foster himself, he boasted of having been married five times, and to have fathered 17 children, with the oldest daughter born c.1784. The last of these claims is obviously unrealistic, if we now accept that he was born in 1774, and would have been a mere 10 years old at the time. While I have only found evidence for two children, I accept there may well have been several others.

Image courtesy of
Marriage: Edward Ward Foster & Isabella Magdalene Graham, 22 December 1841, Islington

  • Edward Ward Foster was probably born at Scarborough, Yorkshire around 1819, son of Edward and Elizabeth Foster. He married Isabella Magdalene Graham at Islington in 1841, died in Peckham and was buried at Nunhead Cemetery, Linden Grove, Southwark on 3 May 1851.
  • Phillis Howard Foster was born at Barony, a suburb of Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland on 2 November 1852 and baptised on 13 June 1855 at the High St Presbyterian or Unitarian Chapel in Portsmouth, Hampshire, daughter of Edward Foster and Margaret Mothersill (IGI). After Foster's death she moved to Southport, Lancashire but was back in Derby visiting in April 1881 and married Matthew Brunskill soon after. They had five children, and lived in Barrow-in-Furness, Waterloo and then Liverpool, where he was a grocer's assistant and coal merchant's agent. Phillis Howard Brunskill died in 1927, aged 74.
Image courtesy of Gale CENGAGE Learning
Death: Eliza Foster, The Derby Mercury, 4 August 1847

Edward Foster had married Margaret Mothersill, the mother of his youngest child, at Manchester in late 1851, the 1851 Census having described him as a widower. Four years earlier, a report in The Derby Mercury stated, "DEATHS. On Tuesday, July 27, in London, Eliza, the beloved wife of Edward Foster, Esq., formerly of St. John's Terrace, Derby, aged 67." It seems likely, given her age, that she was the Elizabeth Ward that Edward Foster married at St Margaret's, Leicester on 10 October 1818, and was presumably the mother of Edward Ward Foster.

Image courtesy of
Death of General Abercrombie at Alexandria, 28 March 1801

Military Service

While Edward Foster may have served in a Derby militia of some kind, if he was born in 1774 then his stated military service as a lieutenant with the 20th Regiment of Foot in America and Holland was impossible. I confirmed that the 20th Regiment were in Minorca in early 1801, travelled to Egypt in June that year, and went to Malta in September. I also found a note that 80 men suffering from ophthalmia were sent back to England. He would have been 25 for the expedition to Egypt, but it is physically impossible that he witnessed General Abercrombie's death in the moment of triumph at Alexandria, since that event occurred on 28 March, prior to the regiment's arrival in Alexandria. Nor have I have been able to find any record of his service with that regiment. It seems to me to have been a complete fabrication.

Image courtesy of
Rev Guthrie at Ragged School, Princes Street, Edinburgh, 1851

Ragged Schools

The Ragged Schools movement has been fairly well documented in a number of texts, but I've been unable to find any mention of either Edward Foster or his son, who described himself as an "Author Lecturer & Professor of Elocution &c." in the 1851 Census, having a prominent role in their promotion or growth.

Image courtesy of Gale CENGAGE Learning
Advertisement in The Hull Packet, 26 December 1809

Miniature Painter and Royal Patronage

Mention is made of two "water-colour miniatures" and a miniature of a lady signed in ink on the reverse "Edward Foster / York" and dated 1803 by Daphne Foskett in Miniatures: Dictionary and Guide (1987). He is also mentioned in Harry Bl├Ąttel's International Dictionary of Miniature Painters, Porcelain Painters, Silhouettists (1992). Once again, I've been unable to find any contemporary evidence of supportive this claim of patronage. He did, however, include a royal coat of arms in some of his advertisements, such as the 1809 example above, which also claims "By His Majesty's Royal Letters Patent."

Image courtesy of Gale CENGAGE Learning
Advertisement in The Leeds Mercury, 17 June 1809

Invention and Patent of Profile-Taking Machine

The first indisputable contemporary evidence found during this study of Foster's commercial artistic activity is an advertisement that he placed in The Leeds Mercury of 17 June 1809. The words "By His Majesty's Royal Letters Patent" suggest that a Royal patent had been granted for the newly invented machine for sketching profiles in a short space of time, accurately and in great detail, although Foster in this particular case neither implicitly states that he was the inventor of the machine nor the grantee of the patent.

Image courtesy of
Patent application for physiognotrace by Schmalcalder, 1806

Later descriptions of the machine render it likely to have been a pantograph, which had been invented at least some two centuries earlier, or at the least an adaptation of one like the physiognotrace, but was perhaps not in common everyday use. Cynthia McKinley described a similar process in use by profile miniature artist James H. Gillespie, who also claimed to have invented a "new optiocal contrivance" which enabled him to draw likenesses in one minute. Although I have not carried out a search at the British Patent Office, I think it rather unlikely that such a patent in Foster's name exists.

Conclusion & Foster's Legacy

I believe the clue to all of these stories lies in the series of four educational charts which Foster was hawking for the last decade of his life. He stated in 1862 that these had been compiled by him at the British Museum, covering histories of the scriptures, England, France, Rome and the British Empire. It is my view that he developed his own "early history" during this voyage of discovery, and used it to good advantage in the years following. As his friend John Haslem stated in 1882, "He was a good hand at spinning a yarn, and in doing so appeared at times to draw somewhat on his imagination."

Image © and courtesy of Peggy McClard Antiques & Cynthia McKinley of Wigs on the Green

So, after that hatchet job, what remains of Edward Foster's legacy? He is unlikely to have had noble ancestry, he does not appear to have served in the miltary, probably never had royal patronage, let alone a royal appointment, and did not live to be a hundred (he was ninety years old when he died). For me it is his fine body of work that stands out, dozens - perhaps hundreds - of gilt-tinged black and reddish brown silhouettes in public and private collections, most signed simply below the bust with "Foster Pinxit" (Foster painted it) and a date, and a good proportion with the trademark "Foster & Crown" brass hanger. If you have a Foster silhouette in your collection, I'd very much appreciate seeing a scan or photograph of it, and if you would be happy for it to be shared via this blog, so much the better.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Now there's a full life! A fine post!

  3. Absolutely one of your best bios! A fascinating story of detective work too. And the various "scanning" machines for silhouettes are amazing.

    I've lately been reading several books on late 19th century characters and the "self-invented" man was a common entrepreneur in many countries. But Foster had real skill in his art form and even in his invented tales. I hope you discover more of his work someday.

  4. Thank you anyjazz and Mike. I'm sure I will come across more of his work, as it periodically comes up for sale on eBay, but it fetches such prices that I doubt I'll be adding to my personal collection any time soon.

  5. This is great investigating! I see now what you meant about making it up. I'm willing to give him the 9 months previous to his birth so he can at least have made 100.

  6. Together these two posts make a real blockbuster. As always I stand in awe of the meticulous research you have carried out to bring us this story of a larger than life character. I don’t think it matters that he was ‘economical with the truth’ when you consider how entertaining his life story is.

  7. Well, well, one might think you have a grudge against the man. A stickler for details, are you? debunking the myth surrounding the man must have been an interesting journey for you. It certainly was a great read for me. I presume there were always people like that, embellishing their life. Lord knows we see plenty of those nowadays but the internet age quickly expose them...

    Good thing he's dead, or you'd make him blush with embarrassment... or he would sue you for libel or something. Some are so used to lying that they eventually believe the lies themselves.
    Great work!!

  8. Well, yes, I do feel a little guilty at the denouement, but I was always more impressed with his silhouettes than any other aspect of his life, and that has not changed.

  9. Another wonderful example of a post which is like a thread which we the readers follow as you take us on a journey through history. Fascinating stuff.

  10. Mind you, your questioning was legitimate. I wonder how many would stand scrutiny nowadays though, some of those legendary figures we hold in high esteem...

  11. Superb research yet again Brett! One family of New Zealand/Australian photographers the Friths were also silhouettists in England and Scotland. A descendant is writing up the story. Cheers! Marcel

  12. He certainly made full use of the old adage that a 'little bit of truth goes a long way', weaving himself a plausible history; plausible, that is until it came under scrutiny!

  13. Wonderful investigation that gives me hope in tracking down information provided by one of my ancestors. He, too, may have embellished a few details here and there. But, as with Edward, many details can be confirmed.

    I have not yet read the first three in the series. More entertainment to come!

  14. I think I have just bought one of his paintings. It is a landscape which has the same basic composition as one currently on sale on ebay. Same hills, distant hill, similar sky and same way of painting rocks and vegetation. Looks as if mine was painted to the left and nearer than the one on ebay. The picture now on ebay is signed. Mine is not. Odd two of them have come up for sale in 2 weeks. Does anyone have any information about his landscape painting?

  15. Likely to be a different Edward Foster, I think.


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