The two women in this wonderfully energetic, light-filled and in parts highly wrought sketch, seem to be responding to an interlocutor outside the picture space. The foremost girl with pale skin and sweetly innocent expression, watches intently, while her dusky companion reacts with more knowing reserve, looking inwards rather than outwards. The event or person eliciting these responses remains unknown, as the sketch is not directly related to any extant finished work by Lewis, although there are points of contact with several of the interiors with opulently dressed women for which he is so highly regarded. The two women's expressions find echoes in the best known of Lewis's harem scenes, The Hhareem (1850, Corporate Collection, Japan), while their position in relation to each other within a window embrasure with its mushrabiyya framework is similar to that seen in a much later oil, The Harem (Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, 1949, p. 14). The deliberate contrast that Lewis sets up between the expressions and skin tones of the two protagonists is reprised more starkly in the racial differences between mistress and attendant in The Arab Scribe, Cairo (1852, Private Collection). It is hard to judge whether this intriguing sketch was made while the artist was living in Cairo, 1841-50, or whether it is a compositional study made in his Walton-on-Thames studio, but in either case it seems clear that the two unveiled women, the one an English rose in appearance, the other a more reticent Egyptian, are models posing at the artist's request.
We would like to thank Briony Llewellyn for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.