Sarah Haven Foster Wildflowers

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.


The Library has a collection of 75 Wildflower paintings. Sarah Haven Foster’s original “Catalogue of Water Color Copies of Wild Flowers Presented by Miss Sarah H. Foster to the Portsmouth Public Library 1900” included 81 paintings, but when the collection was gifted by her sister, Mary A. Foster, in 1901, it appears that the collection contained only 75 individual paintings.

The images represent wild flowers that are native to North America, primarily in the Northeast Seacoast area. Foster likely painted them during the mid to late 1900’s.

Preservation care included removing each painting from acidic mounts and rehousing in polypropylene sleeves.

These images were scanned by volunteers Carolyn Gilberti, Cathryn Czajkowski, and Simmons intern Jillian Carkin. Quality control, research, and metadata created by Simmons GSLIS student intern, Jillian Carkin.
Browse 75 items in Sarah Haven Foster Wildflowers