Anthony Noel Henry Foster

Sculptor

1909-1957

The text of the history section is from the Parish History, written by Des Keohane. The printed version is available from the Church for £3.50, and may be requested by post, at extra cost for postage. Any amendments or additions are welcomed – please send by email to Fr Andrew

Anthony Foster, who carved the Stations of the Cross in St. Gregory’s, was an unassuming man, who never sought fame and died at the early age of 49. However, he was a sculptor of great skill and his work was of high quality. He was also a deep thinking man, and a devout Catholic with a sincere love for his fellow-men.

He was born in Patna in India in 1909, the son of the High Court Judge under the British raj. Anthony came back to school in England and his last school was Downside Abbey School, which he didn’t enjoy. On leaving school, with few qualifications, he was unsure what to do. He tried for six months his vocation at Woodchester as a Dominican, an order in which his brother Kenelm achieved great distinction as a scholar.

It was not for him, but on leaving he experienced a strong urge to be a sculptor. There were no obvious influences governing this urge—as Kenelm later observed, it was akin to a vocation call—but he set about it with resolution. He turned up at Eric Gill’s workshop at Piggotts, near High Wycombe, one day in 1931 (leaving his suitcase in the hedge so as not to look too desperate!) and persuaded Gill to take him on as an apprentice. Within a few years, he was Gill’s main carver.

Gill was then at the height of his powers as a wood engraver, sculptor, typographer. His work ranged from the deeply religious to the erotic, reflecting the dichotomy of his private life in which his firm Catholicism somehow sat side by side with outrageous immorality. Foster shared his Faith but not his immorality.

Anthony had a deep love of the land and of Nature and this with his desire to see a fairer society, led him at Piggotts to embrace the Distributionist Movement. The thinking behind this movement was advanced strongly in the 1930s by those two great writers and Catholic protagonists, G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Their political theory rejected both Capitalism and Socialism in favour of the creation of small farms and businesses run by the workers themselves. Gill too was a strong supporter. Anthony sought to implement the idea and was a co-founder of the first Distributionist community at Langenhoe in Essex. In 1939 he married Wendy Heron, the sister of a Dominican friend, and they began their married life at another Distributionist community at Laxton near Corby.

With the outbreak of war, Anthony registered as a Conscientious Objector. When Laxton was taken to extend an airfield, he moved to Gill’s farm at Piggotts running the farm as his wartime service. After the war, he returned to the workshop and to sculpture. Gill had died in 1940 but the family was trying to keep the business going. It was then that Anthony carved Gill’s Crucifixion on the front of Guildford Cathedral (see photograph overleaf). In 1949 the Fosters moved to Frieth in Buckinghamshire where Anthony set up his own workshop. The last years of his life were dominated by ill-health. He managed to produce a lot of work in wood and stone. He rarely signed his work and kept almost no records of where his work went. Almost certainly, it was in this period that our Stations of the Cross were carved, but no record survives. Despite much physical pain, he managed also to feed his large family on home-grown vegetables and fruit and home-reared chickens and geese. He also taught two days a week at Camberwell School of Art. He was taken ill on his way there and died while being examined at St. Thomas’s Hospital, leaving a wife and six children.

A humble man, as Foster was, who learned his craft under such a large personality as Gill, will always be open to the suggestion that his work lacked originality, that it was too much like Gill’s. Certainly, his style was of the same genre but Kenelm’s robust, but balanced, an analysis in the Blackfriar’s magazine in 1953 identifies the distinguishing “sober sweetness” of Anthony’s work, the greater expression in faces, a homely quality.

Anthony’s six children inherited his artistic temperament and ability: Peter is a sculptor, Richard and Joseph are artists who also do some carving, Mary is an artist in Canada, Bernadette an artistic caterer and Christine is a connoisseur of art.