Western visitors to Cairo in the nineteenth century were enthralled by the teeming population and busy scenes of trade and commerce that characterised the city's streets and bazaars. "How to describe the beauty of the streets to you!", exclaimed William Makepeace Thackeray in his idiosyncratic account of his journey around the Eastern Mediterranean, "There is a fortune to be made for painters in Cairo, and materials for a whole Academy of them. I never saw such a variety of architecture, of life, of picturesqueness, of brilliant colour, and light and shade. There is a picture in every street, and at every bazaar stall. Some of these, our celebrated water-colour painter, Mr Lewis, has produced with admirable truth and exceeding minuteness and beauty" (Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, 1846). Living in the Ezbekiah district of Cairo in the 1840s, Lewis, already famed for his lively scenes of Spanish society, was indeed well placed to make a visual study of Cairene life and architecture, which he hoped would acquire a following equal to that of E.W. Lane's popular manual, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836). Among the numerous sketches that he brought back to England when he returned there in 1851 were several of Cairo's streets and bazaars which capture with masterly precision the complex perspectives and variety of surfaces to be found amid the polychromatic Mamluk architecture. At least one of these seems to have served, three decades later, as the basis for the watercolour seen here, as well as for the oil version of the scene, also dated 1875.
Lewis had intermittently taken up Thackeray's challenge of depicting Cairo's streets intermittently from the mid 1850s onwards, notably in the colourful and teasingly ambivalent oil painting, The seraff (money-changer), a doubtful coin; a scene in a Cairo bazaar, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1869 (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery). Located in almost the same space adjacent to an ablaq masonry archway as the Dellál, this was the first of a cluster of narrative paintings, produced in the latter part of Lewis's life, which focussed on a specific event taking place within the narrow streets of the Khan el-Khalili. Both paintings depict a commercial transaction, but while the earlier Doubtful Coin involves a dispute, the dynamics of the later Dellál revolve around the conclusion or not of a successful sale. Unusually in Lewis's outdoor scenes, women play a central part in the narrative, not subservient or incidental, but equal bartering partners with the men.
By way of an explanation of the subject, when he exhibited the very similar oil version of this composition at the Royal Academy in 1876, Lewis cited E.W. Lane, firmly investing his own work with the authority of the great oriental scholar: "In many of the nooks of Cairo auctions are held on stated days. They are conducted by delláls, or brokers, hired either by persons who have anything they wish to sell in this manner, or by shopkeepers. The Delláls carry the goods up and down, announcing the sums bidden for them with cries of Harraj, harraj, etc". At the centre of the composition the dealer holds aloft a splendid red shawl that has caught the attention of a woman who is examining the quality of the embroidery. No doubt he is proclaiming its merits and trying to improve its price. Lewis had a fine collection of textiles, acquired in Istanbul and Cairo, which he used time and again in his pictures, both to add a layer of authenticity and as an opportunity to display his skill in handling colour and texture. This included an exceptionally fine embroidered shawl from Kashmir, similar to the one seen here, and which he gave to his wife Marian. The large dish under the dealer's left arm seems to be a Chinese blue-and-white ceramic, or possibly a Persian imitation. On the ground at his feet are another textile, a highly decorated vase (possibly Japanese imari), and a brass ewer, or ibrik. A lad, perhaps the dellál's assistant, is holding a silver-framed mirror in which he is admiring his own features. Lewis often used a mirror as a device to add a puzzling dimension to his compositions. Here the figure, situated right at the edge of the composition, may be an analogy with the artist himself who had striven to hold up a mirror to reflect Egyptian society, acknowledging that refractions and distortions were a necessary part of his creative process.
Lewis's reputation as a painter of oriental life had been built on the technical virtuosity of his watercolours and, although market pressures had influenced his switch to oil as his principal medium, it became his practice to make almost identical versions of his exhibited oils in watercolours, which he would sell privately to clients, probably through the agency of the dealer, William Vokins. Only slightly smaller than the oil, the watercolour's impact is equally great and, without the figure of the boy in left foreground, spatially more satisfactory. Using dense, saturated colours, it seems that his intention was to invest his watercolours, the medium in which he was at his best, with the status of oil, the medium in which he had been obliged to paint to further his career and financial security.
We are grateful to Briony Llewellyn and Charles Newton for writing the above catalogue entry.