Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Sepia Saturday 100: Edward Foster, Part 4 - Growth of a Legend

Turning one hundred is an event to be celebrated with much fanfare, whether one receives a traditional letter from the Queen - in the case of the United States, it's the president - or prefers a more muted affair. Alan Burnett's Sepia Saturday series marks its hundredth weekly post this week, with many thousands of historical images and supporting words submitted as part of the weekly themes over the last two years.

Although I've only participated in slightly under a third of those, I've been following the series for a good deal longer. The contributions from all over the world, by participants from a variety of backgrounds, have given me a great deal of enjoyment, as well as providing a very useful regular flow of ideas for my own blog. Congratulations to the originators, Alan and Kat, and to all contributors. By the way Alan, what happened to the first ten in the series?

Image © & courtesy of Virginia Silvester
Edward Foster, Derby, 8 November 1864
Carte de visite by John Burton & Sons, Derby
Image © & courtesy of Virginia Silvester

In three previous Photo-Sleuth articles (Parts 1, 2 and 3) I have talked about the lengthy and intriguing life of Derby celebrity Edward Foster, silhouettist and publisher of educational charts. From c.1808 until at least the mid-1830s he established something of a reputation as a silhouette artist, leaving an impressive residue of work with portraits still valued in collections all over the world. In the 1840s and 1850s, he turned to the compilation and publishing of various educational aids, including scholastic charts. He spent much of his time travelling throughout the British Isles selling these - even in his old age, he was a sprightly fellow.

For much of his life he had made Derby his home town, and on 8 November 1862 a congratulatory dinner was held in honour of "a gentleman who has attained to the ripe old age of one hundred." Thomas Clarke, the town's new mayor, various town councillors and other town worthies were among the 38 guests, while the editor of The Derbyshire and Chesterfield Advertiser, the local Liberal newspaper, Henry Adams proposed the toast of the evening:
Our juvenile friend who sits on my right, looking more like a young Archbishop than a centenarian, betrays no signs of rapidly failing health, notwithstanding a life of great activity and vicissitude. Born on the 8th of November, 1762 - in the first American war, many years ago, he joined the militia [as an ensign], and when the French revolution broke out he went to Egypt with Gen. Abercrombie, and at his death Mr. Foster returned home with 104 men all more or less afflicted with ophthalmia. His friends persuaded him to leave the army, which he did on the day Nelson died.
Being of an active turn of mind, and having also a taste for the fine arts, he in the first instance invented and patented a machine ; and, in the second instance, he turned his attention to the fine arts.
At the death of his son he took to the publishing trade, having compiled some charts, many thousands of which have been sold to clergymen and other ministers, and have found ready acceptance in public and private schools ... our guest has been the husband of five wives, that he has seventeen children, that the first born, if now living, would have attained her 78th year, and that the last and only one which has been left, we hope, to solace and comfort him in his declining days, only a few days ago celebrated her 10th birthday.
Thomas Rose, timber merchant and future mayor, continued:
... many persons had expressed their surprise that their guest was so old a man, but for himself he was not at all surprised, for, judging from the conversations he had had with Mr. Foster, he had found him to be a history within himself - a sort of walking encyclodpaedia.

The Derby Mercury, 15 March 1865

Although he continued to actively tour, Foster appears to have experienced a downturn in sales of his educational aids, and by late 1863 was in such "straitened circumstances" that the Mayor of Derby applied for and was granted £60 from the Royal Bounty Fund for his benefit. The visit to John Burton & Sons' photographic studio in Derby took place in November 1864. His financial situation did not improve, and a further subscription for his benefit was called for by the proprietors of The Derby Mercury and The Derby Advertiser in January 1865. By then, he was ailing rapidly, and he died on Sunday 12th March 1865.

The Derby Mercury, 22 March 1865

Ten days later The Derby Mercury carried a report of his funeral at the New Cemetery in Nottingham Road, Derby on Thursday 16 March.
On Thursday last the remains of Mr. Edward Foster, 'the Derby centenarian' were interred at the new cemetery. The ceremony was conducted by the Rev. W. Oates, and was witnessed by many friends.
Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of
from Derbyshire Gatherings by Joseph Barlow Robinson, 1866

It did not take long for the legend of Edward Foster to take hold. Just a year later, in April 1866, Bemrose and Sons of Derby published a handsome volume entitled Derbyshire Gatherings; a Fund of Delight for the Antiquary, the Historian, the Topographer, the Biographer, and the General Reader, by sculptor and author Joseph Barlow Robinson. This included a section on several "remarkable and eccentric characters," the first of whom was "Mr. Edward Foster, the Derby Centenarian." As can be seen from the full text of this article (transcribed PDF), the biographical notes elaborated considerably on those presented by Henry Adams in Foster's birthday speech, and included several plaudits in prose and verse written during Foster's lifetime.

Reputed self portrait by Edward Foster (Bailey, 1907)

In 1882 a brief mention was made by contemporary John Haslem of Derby of Foster's silhouettes, his longevity and, curiously, his being a "good hand at spinning a yarn, and in doing so appeared at times to draw somewhat on his imagination." An article in a 1907 edition of The Connoisseur, An Illustrated Magazine for Collectors outlined Foster's background, made specific reference to his career as a miniature painter, and included a reputed self portrait by him, in the form of a miniature in a cameo frame - reproduced above - although the source was not given. The author claimed to have "gathered and authenticated" information from Foster's sole surviving daughter, then "living in a suburb of Liverpool, in poor circumstances."

By the time knowledgeable silhouette collector Emily Nevill Jackson published the first significant text on that art form in 1911, Foster's body of work had become sufficiently well known to warrant a siginificant mention. Desmond Coke's The Art of Silhouette, published two years later, espoused the view that Foster was not sufficiently appreciated for his innovative techniques. More recently McKechnie (1978) has written what is possibly the most complete account of Foster's career as a profilist, with a detailed study of extant works, advertisements and trade labels. The biographical material included appears to be a conglomeration of those from the earlier works mentioned above.

Writers of Derbyshire history have also paid periodic attention to Foster over the last century and a half since his death. John Woodiwiss' 1962 article, timed to coincide with the bi-centenary of Edward Foster's birth date, consisted of a re-hash of Robinson's Derbyshire Gatherings biography, a description of some of his extant red and black profiles, and illustrations of three examples from his personal collection. Most recently Peter Seddon has reprised the subject in 2009, with a number of fine illustrations of Foster's work and a well written article, but no new biographical information.

Image © & courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
Edward Foster's grave site, Nottingham Road Cemetery, Derby, 2011
Image © & courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

Even to this day, visitors on a tour of Derby's Nottingham Road Cemetery are shown the site Edward Foster's unmarked "pauper's grave," and regaled with the legend of Derby's much lauded centenarian.

So much for the legend. In the concluding article (Part 5) of this rather drawn-out series, which I intend to also publish this week, I will investigate the nature of this legend, and address some of the uncomfortable discrepancies in the various accounts of his life.


Anon (1862) Congratulatory Dinner to a Centenarian, The Derby Mercury, 12 November 1862.

Anon (1863) Mr. Edward Foster, the Centenarian, The Derby Mercury, 2 December 1863.

Anon (1863) Death of Mr. Edward Foster, The Derby Mercury, 15 March 1865.

Anon (1882) Silhouettes, or Black Profile Portraits, Notes and Queries, April 1882, s6-V (121) : 301 - 320

Bailey, J.T.H. (1907) Edward Foster, the Centenarian Miniature Painter, in The Connoisseur, An Illustrated Magazine for Collectors, Vol. XIX (September-December 1907), p.120,

Coke, Desmond (1913) The Art of Silhouette, M. Secker, 230p.

Haslem, John (1882) Silhouettes, or Black Profile Portraits, in Notes & Queries, Oxford University Press, 6th S. VI. July 15, 1882, from Google Books.

Jackson, Emily Nevill (1911) The History of Silhouettes, The Connoisseur, London.

Jackson, Emily Nevill (1938) Silhouettes - Notes and Dictionary, Methuen Ltd., Republished 1981 as Silhouettes - History and Dictionary of Artists, New York: Dover Publications, 154 p., 103 pl.

McKechnie, Sue (1978) British Silhouette Artists and their Work, 1760-1860, London: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 799p.

Robinson, Joseph Barlow (1866) Derbyshire Gatherings: A fund of delight for the antiquary, the historian, the topographer, the biographer, and the general reader, London: J.R. Smith, 106p, (Mr. Edward Foster, The Derby Centenarian, p. 81-84), Internet Archive (Transcript by Brett Payne, PDF).

Seddon, Peter (2009) Edward Foster: A Master in Profile, Derbyshire Life, July 2009, p.170-173.

White, Francis (1857) History, Gazetteer and Directory of the County of Derby, courtesy of Neil Wilson

Woodiwiss, John (1962) Edward Foster: Derby Silhouettist and Centenarian, Derbyshire Countryside, 8 Nov 1962.


  1. I look forward to the rest of this series. I wonder what happened to his 12 year old daughter.

  2. Thanks Kristin. Follow the link at the end of the story to Part 5, and you will find out - it's already written and posted.

  3. Brett : I have said it so many times, but reading your posts is like settling down to a thoroughly enjoyable - and thoroughly authoritative - book. You might only have been around for a third of the 100, but you have made such a mark on the enterprise - thanks so much for your support. And as for the first 10 Sepia Saturdays - that was before we established the Sepia Saturday Blog and participants used to advertise their participation in comments on my News From Nowhere Blog

  4. Wonderful images and impressively well-researched article. I am a newcomer to the Sepia Saturday and am thrilled to discover new and interesting blogs previously unknown to me. I will take a few hours reading your past posts. Thank you!

  5. You certainly deserve the title of "sleuth." I was somewhat disappointed to find out that his biography wasn't true.

  6. I am always amazed at the research you do for your posts. This is another excellent one.

  7. Such an interesting post. I collect silhouettes so was particularly interested in this mini history. I'll definitely read more.
    Nancy Javier

  8. Oh so much here to revel in.. that toast itself if well worth the reading! I cannot get my head around someone fathering a child at 90 which would have been the case for him to have a 10 year old at 100! He outlasted 5 wives! This was so full of information that I had to read it again. A great salute to 100

  9. Full of wonderful info - I will come back and read the rest when I have more time. Some interesting snippets - 'looking like a young Archbishop'!?? Death notices these days don't tend to tell you that family was left 'in straitened circumstances' either, even if they were. The Victorian way of death was very different.

  10. Great post Brett! I wonder if people will bother to visit my gravesite a couple of hundred years after I pass on?????

  11. Again.Brett, You Colour in the details within the silhouettes!
    Thank You for another splendid post.

  12. What a man! You have done justice to his life with this outstanding post.

  13. Perfect post for this week. What an interesting story. The way with so many legends. Ending up with no head marker. How sad.

  14. The perfect post to commemorate Sepia Saturday's 100th week! I can't wait to read the rest of the series.

  15. What a fascinating post and how great to have found a centenarian!

  16. A delightful treasure as always, and your photos assisting....I find the topic so adventurous! Keep on....

  17. An astonishing amount of detail - you really are an unstoppable investigator, Brett. Thanks for taking the time to share your research :-) Jo

  18. Fantastic post! As with all your posts Brett, I always come away amazed at the research and detail that you put into them.

  19. Fascinating. I really enjoyed reading the toast, even if I almost spit out my coffee when I got to the part about the ten-year-old daughter.

  20. Brett,

    If we could all only have natural, happy, peaceful deaths due to natural decay.

    This is a wonderful post. Where will you publish this series when it is all done? You are a great writer.

    Take care,

    Kathy M.

  21. Brilliant. So he fathered a child when he was 90? amazing.

  22. I see several of us were stopped by the fact that he had a 10 year old daughter at 90. Yet this was only one of his many accomplishments.

  23. I haven't time tonight but I will come back to read part 5, the follow-up of this story. He was an interesting man and accomplished so much in his lifetime. Amazing that he was active so late in life, and too bad that he ended up with so little money to support himself and his family at the end. Thanks for sharing the results of your research.

  24. Again, a superbly documented history that you have developed from a photo. You hint that part 5 may show some parts of his story to be untrue...please tell me that the extraordinary range of children is exagerated?

  25. Mary (and others) - Part 5 is already written and posted so head on to read the grand finale. All will be revealed!

  26. Thankfully,
    I have a whole coffee pot next to me
    to spur me on to the next [newest] post about the same man. What a remarkable post. I must command your commitment to this and this minutie for details.

    Pity he couldn't be better appreciated in his lifetime, as it is too often the case...

  27. What a thorough piece of research! I'm just off to read aprt 5.

  28. I found your post incredibly interesting and it contains such a treasure trove of fine hued research! I tip my hat off to you!

    I love the way they didn't mince words in the obituaries of old ... "died of natural decay". The use of language was so much more colourful than it is now.


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