'There is no better artist in England than J.F. Lewis, while there is none to compare with him in the class of subjects which has made his reputation'. In 1861, when a contemporary art critic included this accolade in his review of John Frederick Lewis's exhibits at the Royal Academy, there was indeed no artist in Britain who equalled him in the masterly handling of light and texture or in the particular intensity of vision that he applied to his Orientalist subjects. This painting, with its extraordinarily satisfying colour harmonies and its uncluttered focus on a single figure, demonstrates why Lewis is today still regarded as pre-eminent among British Orientalists, and arguably among European practitioners of the genre as well.
Seated in eastern fashion with one leg tucked under him, and the other serving as a prop for his right arm, is a middle-aged man wearing Arab clothes. Positioned right at the front of the picture plane and spatially confined by the woven horizontally striped pattern of the goat's wool tent, the figure immediately engages the viewer's attention, even though his gaze is oblique rather than direct. His outer garment is an abayah, its voluminous folds showing off the striking pattern of broad brown and cream panels; beneath this he wears the traditionally striped silk and cotton qumbaz, crossed over and held in place at the waist by a tooled red leather hizam or belt. On his head, instead of the traditional Arab kufiyeh, is a red turban, apparently tied from an Indian fabric sash. In his right hand he holds a smoothly-fashioned brown wooden bowl, from which he seems about to drink, an unusual item in Lewis's iconography. From the roof of the tent hang a blue and red patterned cloth to the left and what seems to be a sheathed dagger with a tasselled red securing cord to the right; propped up against the back wall is a cherry-wood chibuk, with its distinctive knobbed amber mouth-piece. To Lewis aficionados the garments seem familiar, and they, or very similar versions, appear on the male figures in several of Lewis's outdoor compositions of the later 1850s and early 1860s, of which the most recently available examples are the watercolour version of Greetings in the Desert, 1855, and the small oil, An Arabian Chief, seated in a Cairo Bazaar, 1857 (fig. 1). The most strikingly similar use of the red turban is seen in A Memlook Bey, Egypt (watercolour version, 1863, private collection). In some of these images the meticulous rendering of ethnographic detail is occasionally undermined by misrepresentation, as in the Arab of the Desert of Sinai, discussed here, where the turban appears to have been incorrectly tied.
If the man's clothes have the ring of familiarity so too do his features, with his thick brown beard and long, straight, Roman nose, clearly delineated by the light. The same male figure appears in the works already mentioned, as well as in several others of this period including A Syrian Sheikh, Egypt (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; watercolour, private collection), and comparison with earlier portraits of Lewis suggest that they are, if not a wholly accurate representation of Lewis's own features, at least a distillation of them, creating more than a passing resemblance to the artist himself. In other words, this apparently straightforward representation of a Sinai shaykh, is not what it seems, but is instead a far more complex image involving the crossing and blurring of boundaries between East and West. Why Lewis should have chosen to portray himself in various oriental roles in so many - indeed in nearly all of his Orientalist compositions that include male figures - has been the focus of some academic attention in recent years, but in the absence of any explanation either from the artist himself or from his contemporaries, his reasons are likely to remain elusive. Should his cultural cross-dressing be judged as 'imposture', a Westerner taking on the guise of an Eastern character in order to assert his moral and physical superiority? Or, should we take the opposite view: that Lewis's adoption of a Muslim Arab's 'persona' shows his own sympathies with their way of life, and a desire to dissolve the distinction between East and West? Is it part of an elaborate 'spinning' of his public image, demonstrating that his familiarity with and understanding of Arab culture had established him as an artist uniquely qualified to present his audiences with 'real' Oriental scenes and people? Was it simply the pragmatic decision of an artist, working in his studio, unwilling or unable to find suitable models to pose for him, and reluctant to over use the inevitably un-lifelike lay figures that he is known to possess? All through his life Lewis had employed his own features to serve his artistic purposes, from his fine pencil drawings as a very young man at the beginning of his career to oil paintings executed in the 1870s, shortly before his death: should this practice be viewed as evidence of a narcissistic personality or simply as the continuation of a long-established artistic tradition? Such speculations - and many more can be made - are inevitable with Lewis, whose life and work, lacking the extensive contemporary documentation that has cast light on so many of his artistic peers, is still in many respects an enigma.
Sparse as they are, the facts of Lewis's encounter with the East are briefly told. After journeys to Spain and then Italy in the 1830s, he travelled through Greece to Istanbul, where he spent about a year, before continuing on to Cairo in 1841/2. He spent nearly a decade there, visiting Suez and the Sinai on more than one occasion, although precise details of these visits are not known, and, in 1850, shortly before his return home, he travelled the route up the Nile, at least as far as Philae, which by then had been frequented by many intrepid western tourists. During these years Lewis had familiarised himself both with the narrow streets and dimly lit bazaars of old Cairo, with its intricate Mamluk architecture, and, in complete contrast, with the vast open spaces, blue skies and intense bright light of the desert. He made numerous detailed but perhaps deliberately unfinished pencil and watercolour sketches of the people and animals who inhabited both these localities, apparently gathering them together for publication in a series that was intended to match the popular success of the volumes reproducing the watercolours of David Roberts and Sir David Wilkie, his admired predecessors in the region. Some of these drawings were seen by Lewis's friend, the writer William Makepeace Thackeray, when he visited Cairo in 1844, towards the end of his tour around the eastern Mediterranean. Thackeray was a brilliant essayist and novelist, and his account of his journey, Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1846), combines fact and fiction in a typically idiosyncratic way. The description of his visit to Lewis is littered with double entendres aimed at a western audience already sated with a large body of popular travel literature. Thackeray's text reveals a great deal both about Lewis's life in Cairo and about the image of it that writer and artist wished to convey.
Lewis, wrote Thackeray, 'has established himself here in the most complete Oriental fashion' in a house, 'far away from the haunts of European civilization, in the Arab quarter...situated in a cool, shady, narrow alley'. On entering the 'broad open court' he encountered 'the walls of his long, queer, many-windowed, many-galleried house' and was ushered into a 'hall of audience' with a ceiling 'carved, gilt, painted and embroidered with arabesques and choice sentences of Eastern writing'. At last 'J' appeared, but utterly changed from the sartorial frequenter of clubs he had known in London and Paris: 'A man - in a long yellow gown, with a long beard, somewhat tinged with grey, with his head shaved, and wearing on it first a white wadded cotton night-cap, second, a red tarboosh...'. After a time however 'his oriental coolness and langour gave way to British cordiality' and he became again the amusing companion of former days. 'He has adapted himself outwardly, however, to the oriental life. When he goes abroad he rides a grey horse with red housings, and has two servants to walk beside him. He wears a very handsome grave costume of dark blue, consisting of an embroidered jacket and gaiters, and a pair of trousers, which would make a set of dresses for an English family. His beard curls nobly over his chest, his Damascus scimitar on his thigh. His red cap gives him a venerable and Bey-like appearance'. Attired thus, as an Ottoman subject, and with naturally dark features, Lewis was well placed to roam the streets of Cairo and to observe the activities of the city's inhabitants at close quarters, without offending local sensibilities. Lewis lived a dual existence: he adopted the dress and customs of Cairo's Turkish élite, but retained many British habits, eating meat, as Thackeray noted, 'with an Infidel knife and fork' and drinking 'certain sherberts, prepared by the two great rivals, Hadji Hodson and Bass Bey'. He associated with the expatriate community, being described by Henry Abbott, another long-standing member of this group, as 'an excellent fellow, liked by everyone', he ordered tea from a British merchant in Alexandria and collected antiquities as well as the items of Egyptian costume, oriental porcelain and artefacts that he later used extensively as props in his paintings. While conveying an impression of indolence - Thackeray's 'languid Lotus-eater' - he was actively working to accumulate a large number of sketches and a few full-size compositions.
In 1851 Lewis returned to England, following the enormous acclaim with which his watercolour, The Hhareem, was received the previous year when it was exhibited at the Old Water-Colour Society. Over the next twenty-five years he continued to exhibit scenes of oriental life - Bedouin with their camels in the desert, women gorgeously attired in interiors suffused with dappled light or in lush gardens surrounded by flowers, and traders, entertainers, scribes and other inhabitants of the bazaars and coffee-houses of Cairo. Among the watercolours that Lewis exhibited during the decade in which he returned was a group of desert scenes, of which A Frank Encampment in the Desert of Mt. Sinai 1842 is the most elaborately conceived and the most applauded by critics from John Ruskin onwards (Yale Center for British Art). With their extraordinarily life-like camels, complete with intricate details of saddles, bridles and colourful trappings, they reflect Lewis's love of the desert. As he had explained to Thackeray, 'the great pleasure of pleasures was life in the desert, - under the tents, with still more nothing to do than in Cairo; now smoking, now cantering on Arabs, and no crowd to jostle you; solemn contemplations of the stars at night, as the camels were picketed, and the fires and the pipes were lighted'. From this we are led to assume that Lewis adopted the costume and habits of the Bedouin peoples, an impression that he may have been deliberately reinforcing with his series of desert scenes and single figures of 'Arab Sheikhs', exemplified by the painting under discussion here.
By 1858, the date of this painting, Lewis had returned to oil painting, a medium in which he had become proficient earlier in his career, realising that it was more remunerative than watercolour. He had resigned his Presidency of the Society of Painters in Water Colours in order to qualify for election to the Royal Academy, becoming an Associate early the following year. From then on he continued to exhibit almost every year until his death in 1876, becoming a full Academician in 1865. At times the titles of his exhibits are similar, so that the identity of some of his paintings is uncertain. This is the case here: at the Royal Academy in 1858 was 'An Arab of the Desert of Sinai' (No.114) and, in 1861, 'A Bedouin Sheikh, Egypt' (No.149). It seems that at least since the early 20th century when the painting was sold by the Blackburn dealer, Richard Haworth, to the collector John Edmondson, it had been thought to be the latter exhibit. However, the labels on the back are not contemporary with the painting and probably date from c.1900-10 when Haworth, who was also a frame-maker, acquired and probably reframed it. It was included in the 1920 exhibition at Blackburn Corporation Art Gallery with the same information. Further research now suggests that this painting was in fact the earlier exhibit: the work is dated 1858 and it would have been unusual for Lewis to have waited three years between finishing a painting and exhibiting it at the Royal Academy; moreover, a contemporary review describing the 1858 exhibit as 'kingly and grave, with his brown bowl of goat's milk' (as already noted, not one of Lewis's usual 'props'), seems to fit the painting here (The Athenaeum, 8 May 1858, p. 596). Another review refers to the 'breadth and amplitude of his draperies' (Art Journal, 1858, p. 163). The previous year Lewis had bought eight panels of varying sizes from Charles Roberson, the artists' suppliers that he habitually used, and the firm's label on the back indicates that this may have been one of them (Roberson Archive, HKI MS 245-1993, pp.297-98).
Despite Lewis's primary allegiance to oil from the later 1850s he continued to paint in watercolour, often making almost identical watercolour versions of his exhibited oils. Constantly switching between the two mediums, it is hardly surprising that he treated each in a similar manner: using fine sable brushes he applied the oil paint thinly and with the delicacy and finesse of a watercolour, a habit that was remarked on by several art critics. 'As for Mr. J.F. Lewis', wrote the 1858 Athenaeum reviewer, 'he must paint with etching-needles, so thready are his coloured tissues, so perfect his embroideries, sometimes a little pinched and dry and warped and mean, but generally beautifully and matchlessly honest. Mr Lewis has a sense of humour and of beauty, of drawing and of colour, thoroughly Eastern, new and fresh as a daguerreotype, and fit to produce as evidence'. The comparison with the recently developed early form of photography is telling: Lewis had succeeded in convincing his public that his subjects were true to life. More than this, he presented them in a way that was in tune with contemporary moral values: his 'Arab sheikh' is not 'ragged and dirty' as the desert tribesmen were perceived to be, but 'a man of rank' (Art Journal, 1858), endowed with a noble simplicity that would appeal to Victorian ideas of propriety and sentiment.
Many of Lewis's paintings and watercolours may be seen in a major travelling exhibition, organised by Tate Britain, The Lure of the East British Orientalist Painting: Tate Britain, London, 4 June - 31 August 2008; Pera Museum, Istanbul, 23 September 2008 - 4 January 2009; Sharjah Art Museum, February - April 2009.
We are grateful to Briony Llewellyn for preparing this catalogue entry; further thanks are due to Charles Newton, Patricia Baker and Emily M. Weeks.