This previously unrecorded watercolour is a rare interior view offering a very personal record of what was a magnificent collection of furniture and porcelain put together by Myles Birket Foster. As Jan Reynolds writes, 'Birket Foster was a man with a quiet sense of humour and it seems that many of the details in this watercolour were included as a kind of private joke, to be recognised by those who knew him and his home, but otherwise accepted as valid Old Curiosities by the general public' (private correspondence, 2000).
A sketch for the finished watercolour was published by H.M. Cundall in 1906 as in the collection of Sharpley Bainbridge (see Cundall, Birket Foster, London, 1906, no. 58, before p. 157, illustrated in colour). The sketch varies slightly in content, omitting the Northumberland pipes, the sword and the bugle amongst other smaller items, and is executed in a very loose hand. It is recorded as measuring 175/8 x 125/8 in., considerably smaller than our unusually large finished watercolour.
Although the interior is not recognisable as belonging to The Hill, Birket Foster has absorbed a number of features into his painting from his house at Witley, Surrey, most notably the small stained-glass window panel, designed by Ford Madox Brown for The Hill as part of a series illustrating King René's Honeymoon, installed in 1862, and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The pane chosen here is that representing 'Architecture' (see fig. 1); the others, representing music, painting and sculpture were designed by Rossetti and Burne-Jones. Other windows in the house contained heraldic motives similar to those shown in the window here.
The figure of the shopkeeper or connoisseur is depicted seated upon what is thought to be the large Spanish treasure chest, known in the Foster family as 'the Armada' chest, included in the Christie's sale of some of the contents of The Hill on 30 April 1894, lot 117 (sold to J. Agnew for 25 gns.). The chest is thought to have been taken by Captain Vansittart Earle from one of the ships of the Spanish Armada in the engagement under Admiral Howard in 1588.
Birket Foster was an avid collector of porcelain, in particular Nankin and Oriental enamel. This interest in blue and white china was partly inspired by Foster's friendship with Rossetti who also hoarded such works of art. Often in Birket Foster's watercolours one sees a small still-life featuring a delicately observed piece of china. Photographs of The Hill in J. Reynolds, Birket Foster, London, 1984, pp. 95, 98 and 105 show just how overcrowded every surface in the house was. When Foster eventually moved from The Hill in 1894 a large proportion of the collection was sold at Christie's and described as 'A valuable collection of Old Nankin Porcelain, Grès de Flandres, Majolica and Enamels'. 115 pieces were included in the same sale as the Armada chest, some of which may well be included in the present watercolour. Lot 78, the Grès de Flandres ink stand, may be that on the dresser behind the old man, and lot 81 might be the puzzle jug described in the catalogue as 'jug with circular body diaper patterns and masks', seen in the right foreground on the floor. A further sale of Birket Foster's porcelain was held at Christie's on 1 December 1921.
The bugle hanging on the left hand wall of the composition was inherited by Birket Foster's son and is well known to the family. Birket Foster picked it up in France on a trip and it survived in the family until the second World War. The bugle, relating closely to the derivation of the family name 'Forester', was incorporated into Birket Foster's coat of arms and into two personalised devices.
We are grateful to Jan Reynolds for her help in cataloguing this watercolour.