Late in life, John Frederick Lewis was addressed with admiration by a younger colleague, the sculptor, Thomas Woolner, as 'the great Oriental'. For the last quarter of a century his exquisitely detailed portrayals of Eastern culture had brought him plaudits from the critics and success in the market. As well as the technical virtuosity for which his work was celebrated, his fame as a painter of oriental life rested on the authority he had gained from residing in Cairo for nearly a decade, unlike rivals in the field who had merely visited for a period of weeks or months. There he had lived in a large Mamluk-style house, apparently in one of the Coptic districts near the Ezbekieh. According to the tantalisingly sparse accounts of his Western visitors, he had adopted the dress and some of the social customs of a wealthy Egyptian, but at the same time had retained many European habits and associated with other expatriate residents, who, like himself, inhabited a middle ground between Eastern and Western cultures.
It was however the 'exotic' aspect of Lewis's life in Cairo that the brilliant essayist and novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray, chose to highlight in his colourful, tongue-in-cheek account of his visit to the artist in 1844. Describing a luxurious Eastern life-style, complete with traditional Ottoman costume, pipes, servants and an animal menagerie, he invested his friend's existence with an Arabian Nights-style glamour. He detailed first the 'broad open court, with a covered gallery running along one side of it', opposite which were 'the walls of his long, queer, many-windowed, many-galleried house', then the large 'hall of audience', where, joined by his orientalised host, he enjoyed an 'excellent' dinner 'cooked by a regular Egyptian female cook'. They had eaten the meats 'with the Infidel knife and fork; but for the fruit, we put our hands into the dish and flicked them into our mouths in what cannot but be the true oriental manner' (Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, 1846).
Lewis's depiction in The Mid-day Meal, more than thirty years later, of a sumptuous array of luscious fruit being enjoyed by a group of traditionally clad Oriental men, seems to evoke Thackeray's account; but its nearer textual counterpart is the more mundane description of Egyptian gastronomy provided by the well-known Arabist, Edward Lane, in his 'Domestic Life' chapter of Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836). The almost identical but much larger oil version of the composition accompanied another painting in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1876 (see lot 10) which was catalogued with an extract from Lane explaining its subject. Although no text from Lane accompanied Midday Meal, Cairo (as it was titled) the analogy would surely have been drawn. Lane had also described the architectural features of domestic houses, among them the maq'ad, or loggia, within which the men in Lewis's picture are placed. This was one layer of authentic ethnographic detail with which Lewis furnished his image; another was the location. The courtyard was already familiar to his viewers from his painting, exhibited twelve years earlier, The Hòsh (courtyard) of the house of the Coptic Patriarch, Cairo and it was by then probably well-known that the setting was the house in which the artist had lived in Cairo. Although this seems to have been destroyed in one of the frequent fires that were the scourge of many cities in the nineteenth century, various features of it are immortalised in Lewis's sketches and paintings, among them a drawing of the magnificent mashrabiyyah window (Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
With such authority Lewis builds up his visual exposition of Egyptian life. At the same time the demands of his patrons dictated that the oriental subject matter should seem to sit comfortably within the confines of established Victorian genre. The theme of men sharing food and enjoying jokes, without the constraints of female company, would have been familiar to his public, as would the subject of women shopping that is portrayed in A Cairo Bazaar; the Dellál (Lot 14). Typically however, in showing the two subjects at the same Royal Academy exhibition, Lewis has, by displaying his men indoors and his women outdoors, inverted convention in a reversal of the usually accepted gender roles.
While the oil painting was acquired by one of Lewis's established clients from the newly-rich middle-classes, James Dyson Perrins, of Lea and Perrins, makers of the famous Worcester sauce, the watercolour was bought by J.S. Kennedy of Wetherby, of whom nothing is known. Expressing the prevailing concern about the fragility of the watercolour medium, Kennedy asked Lewis in a letter how he should hang it and what precautions he should take to preserve it. Less than a month before his death, Lewis's frailty was such that his wife Marian replied on his behalf, writing that 'valuable Watercolour pictures are best conserved by having a light piece [of] silk curtain before them when not required to be looked at'. At the end of the letter she affirmed that her husband 'considers the "Midday Meal" the best Watercolour drawing he has ever made' (dated 22 July 1876, the letter was sold with the watercolour in 1979).
We are grateful to Briony Llewellyn and Charles Newton for writing the above catalogue entry.