Sarah Haven Foster Views of Portsmouth

The Portsmouth Public Library’s Special Collections Room holds several albums containing nearly 1000 individual Sarah Haven Foster watercolors. These were painted locally and during travels abroad. They depict a wide array of buildings, landscapes, and wild flowers. Most of the images are painted in miniature, some as small as postage stamps.

Sarah Haven Foster (1827-1900), was the daughter of John Welsh Foster (1789-1852) and Mary (Appleton) Foster. She had one sister, Mary Appleton Foster, and one brother, Joseph H. Foster.

John Welsh Foster was a prominent member of the Portsmouth community. He was a bookseller and printer, Deacon of the South Meeting House, a Portsmouth Athenaeum founder, school committee member, on the board of selectmen, and incorporator of the Portsmouth Savings Bank. His businesses dealt with printing, book selling and bookbinding. His success allowed his daughters the opportunity to make summer trips to Europe. Sarah and her sister Mary lived in Europe from 1886-1890. On those trips Sarah produced approximately 600 watercolors depicting buildings and landscapes in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, England, Scotland, and Wales.

Aside from a bit of correspondence found in the collection of the Portsmouth Athenaeum, little is known of Sarah Haven Foster’s life. Record of her public life is nearly non-existent. She was a member of the Unitarian Church. By all accounts she was shy and did not like public attention. No known likenesses of Sarah have been found. A 2013 publication entitled Portsmouth Women: Madams & Matriarchs Who Shaped New Hampshire’s Port City, edited by Laura Pope, includes a chapter on Sarah Haven Foster written by Maryellen Burke and illustrated with images from the Library’s collection. As explained in this chapter, the Foster family was involved in many benevolent and community building activities. It is likely that Mary, Sarah’s sister, deposited her paintings at the Public Library because of her involvement with the founding of the library, and their shared support of the institution throughout their lives.

Sarah Haven Foster published two books, Watchwords for Young Soldiers, a volume of children’s Bible stories published in 1864, and The Portsmouth Guide Book, published in 1876 by her brother, Joseph H. Foster.

In August 19, 1900, at the age of 74, Sarah was the victim of the first fatal accident on the Portsmouth Electric Railroad. The day was warm and extra cars were running to and from the beach. Reports claimed that the cars were running late and were going "at a good rate, though not a reckless one". She stepped out after waiting for a car to pass, but an extra car following hit her. She had been heading home from the Lyman residence. She died later that day of her sustained injuries. She was 74 years old. Foster is buried in Proprietors' cemetery.

Views of Portsmouth

In this album, Foster captures her fondness for the Portsmouth of old. Her realistic and gentle paintings capture a slightly ideal view of Portsmouth. These 174 miniature paintings are mounted and bound in a single volume entitled “Sketches of Portsmouth”. Collectively, they represent a view of mid-19th century Portsmouth and its environs unlike anything else we are aware of. It includes 34 paintings of buildings in Portsmouth (at last count, 14 of the Portsmouth buildings depicted are still standing). Also included are landscapes and buildings from York, New Castle, Newington, Kittery, Gerrish Island and the Isles of Shoals.

Although in miniature, as you browse through this collection, you will notice Foster’s attention to detail, particularly in the architectural features. After more than a century, the colors remain brilliant and the condition of most of this collection is quite good.

The provenance of this volume is somewhat uncertain; however, Library reports indicate that Sarah’s sister, Mary Appleton Foster, gave her sister’s painting albums to the Public Library between 1900 and 1903.

Mary Appleton Foster was a Civil War Nurse in the 1862-1865. In 1871, with Reverend James De Normandie (Unitarian minister) and others she helped to establish the Young People’s Union, which collected books and loaned them to Portsmouth’s youth. In 1874, the Union ceased, and in 1880 Mary Foster conceived of the idea to loan these books to the public. She and others created the library in the Custom house which opened January 1, 1881. After several moves, eventually, in 1896, a library was established in the "Portsmouth Academy" building.

The Library has addressed some of this album’s conservation needs in recent years through generous funding provided by a New Hampshire Moose Plate Grant. Deborah Mayer, local paper conservator, stabilized the album and re-housed individual fascicles in non-acidic enclosures, also enabling safe handling for digitization.

These images were digitized almost solely by library volunteer Carolyn Giberti. Quality control and metadata created by Simmons GSLIS student intern, Jillian Carkin
Browse 171 items in Sarah Haven Foster Views of Portsmouth