In a sunlit shop stall in a Cairo bazaar a middle-aged man wearing Arab dress sits facing the viewer. His clothes indicate that he is a wealthy, non-Egyptian landowner. He wears an inner crossed-over robe or quambaz made of silk and cotton mixture, with a traditional striped pattern, its voluminous folds displayed by his pose - one leg crossed over the other, and held in place by a red fabric cummerbund. Over this is a stiffer and thicker cabayeh, a traditional outer garment made of wool or wool and cotton, worn with the weft falling downwards. On his head is a folded yellow and red silk kuffiya held in a place by a roll of black silk. His sandals (na'l) are of a kind typically worn throughout the semi-desert regions of the Near East. He is placed with his back to one of the side walls of a stone booth, and, on his left, apparently for sale in the unseen merchant's stall, are a variety of objects: a blue and white Chinese export porcelain bowl resting on a Caucasian or Anatolian rug, and, on the shelves, some lengths of coloured silk, a Japanese Imari plate and some fruit. Behind him, opening on to a stepped alley-way, are further stone shop booths, their occupiers' presence indicated by a long stemmed pipe (chibuk) and an unglazed earthenware pot, and by a man wearing a blue robe and white turban, with his red slippers on a ledge beside him. At the top are further indistinct figures, including another Arab showing the back of his long cabayeh, silhouetted against the sunlit street into which juts a typically Ottoman window balcony. It seems that the viewer is being presented with an image of an Arab shaykh from one of the desert tribes outside Cairo, who has come into the city to make some purchases.
Closer consideration, however, exposes some anomalies. The shaykh is apparently seated on a high stool or chair, and his leg pose is unusual for an Arab; his features and fair skin suggest a man of Western rather than Eastern origin. Comparison with other images by Lewis of the mid 1850s reveals the presence of the same, similarly dressed man. He is the subject of A Syrian Scheik, Egypt (1856, oil on panel, 43.1 x 30.4 cm, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; watercolour version with Spink, 1995) and is also the right-hand figure of the two men in The Greeting in the Desert, Egypt (1855, oil on panel, 44 x 61cm , Christie's, 20 June 1986, lot 92; watercolour version, Christie's 15 June 2005, lot 16). At least two of the same garments - the striped qumbaz and the yellow and red kuffiya, albeit differently wrapped around the head - and similar features, are seen in the figure of the older white man in The Pipe Bearer (1986, oil on panel, 43 x 30.4 cm, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery). Another, slightly later painting provides another clue to the possible 'identity' of this figure: In the Bezestein: El Khan Khalil (also known as The Carpet Seller, 1860, oil on panel, 66 x 53.5 cm, Sotheby's, 20 November 1996, lot 251; watercolour version, Blackburn Corporation Art Gallery). By means of comparison with two photograph portraits of Lewis, taken at about the same time, this has been shown to represent the artist himself (see B. Llewellyn, 'A Masquerade Unmasked; An Aspect of John Frederick Lewis's Encounter with Egypt', in J. Thompson ed. Egyptian Encounters, special issue of Cairo Papers in Social Science, Fall 2000, American University in Cairo Press). On the basis of this and of earlier portaits of Lewis, it seems reasonable to suggest that the 'Arab Shaykh' detailed above are, if not portraits of Lewis himself, at least taken from from his own features. The suggestion is strengthened by noting several other compositional similarities between the 1861 'Carpet Seller' and the 1857 'Arab Shaykh' under discussion here: both men are presented fully face-on to the viewer, both are seated close to a shop stall, probably in the Ghuriya bazaar area of Cairo (the location of several other street scences by Lewis), although the buildings are not specific enough to be sure of the location, and both are placed within a clearly defined area, separated from the open space behind by a backdrop, in this case the beautifully modulated limestone wall. In each of them, foreground 'litter'- flowers, leaves, feathers, orange-peel and pieces of broken ceramic - provides touches of strong colour linking with the middle and far ground, and bringing the composition together. The presence of 'Lewis', or a figure with features based on his own, in oriental guise, is by no means an unusual incidence, and re-occurs many times throughout his oriental work. This cultural cross-dressing may have been a means of reinforcing the 'authenticity' of his oriental images: as a habitue of the Cairo street and the Sinai desert he was presenting himself as an artist uniquely placed to provide his audience with 'real' oriental scenes.
Lewis had spent a decade, 1841-51, living and working in Cairo, at a time when few British artists had visited the city and even fewer had devoted attention to the everyday life of the people that inhabited it. Among the subjects especially favoured by Lewis were the street and covered markets in the centre of the city, surrounding the impressive architecture of its mamluk mosques and mausolea. He made a number of detailed but - perhaps deliberately - unfinished pencil and watercolour sketches of these streets and bazaars, capturing the light and atmosphere of the vast spaces and accurately depicting the complex architectural features of the buildings with their intricately carved and banded stonework, wooden structures and textile awnings. 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, and they are mentioned in his later account of the trip, Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1846). Expressing his own astonishment at the scenes in Cairo that confronted him, he wrote: 'How to describe the beauty of the streets to you! - the fantastic splendour; the variety of the houses, and archways, and hanging roofs, and balconies and porches; the delightful accidents of light and shade which chequer them; the noise, the bustle, the brilliancy of the crowd; the interminable vast bazaars with their barbaric splendour! 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; but there is room for a hundred to follow him...'.
A brilliant essayist and novelist, Thackeray's account of his journey combines fact and fiction in a typically idiosyncratic way. The description of his visit to Lewis that follows shortly after this passage is littered with double entendres aimed at a western audience already sated with a large body of popular travel literature. While Thackeray may deliberately have sensationalised his account of Lewis, much in it can be corroborated by the fragments of information that exist in letters from other European visitors, and, read carefully, 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'. Thus attired, Lewis was well placed to roam the streets of Cairo, and, while his 'disquise' is unlikely to have fooled anybody it would at least have enabled him to observe the activities of the city's inhabitants at close quarters. Lewis lived a dual existence; he adopted the dress and customs of Cairo's Turkish elite, 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. While immersed in an Islamic society, he was at the same time engaged in the particularly European activity of recording and interpreting 'alien' peoples for a 'home' audience.
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 Society of Painters in Water Colour. Armed with his store of sketches and his collection of costume and artefacts, he continued, over the next twenty-five years, 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 applaued by critics from Ruskin onwards (1856, watercolour and bodycolour, 64.8 x 134.3 cm, 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. At the same time, encouraged by Ruskin who asked him why he did not paint in a more durable medium than watercolour, Lewis returned to oil painting, a medium in which he had become competent earlier in his career, submitting the results for exhibition at the Royal Academy from 1855. The two scenes with 'Arab Shaykhs', mentioned above, were both exhibited at the RA in 1857 and 1856 respectively. Both these are clearly located in the desert of Sinai and it is possible that the present oil, despite its small dimensions, is the 1858 exhibit entitled An Arab of the Desert of Sinai (no. 114). At least two other exhibits that year were equally small in size: Lilies and Roses (no. 51), probably identifiable with The Bouquet (1857, oil on panel, 30.5 x 18.5 cm, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, New Zealand) and Interior of a mosque at Cairo - afternoon prayer (the 'Asr'), probably the painting of the same name, now in a private collection (oil on panel, 31 x 21 cm.). The description in the Art Journal of the RA exhibit, no. 114, is not sufficiently specific to be certain, but could well refer to the present painting: 'From the breadth and amplitude of his draperies, we must receive him as a man of rank; if not, he is much too neat, for the ordinary sons of Ishmael are ragged and dirty. The figure is finished with the same minute manipulation in which the other works of Mr Lewis are made out'. (Art Journal, 1858, p.163). The 'sons of Ishmael' were, by tradition, considered to be the ancestors of the Arab desert tribes.
The year these paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1858, was a turning point in Lewis's career. The watercolours that he had exhibited earlier in that decade at the Society of Painters in Water Colours had been highly praised by Ruskin, among others, for their minute detail and technical brilliance, and in 1855 Lewis was elected President of the Society. At the same time, as we have seen, he was exhibiting oil paintings at the RA, realising that this medium was more remunerative than watercolour and harbouring an ambition to be elected a Royal Academician. His position, with a foot in both camps, became untenable late in 1857, when the stress seems to have brought on some kind of crisis. When asked to speak at an SPWC dinner in December, words failed him and he left early to go home. Early the following year he resigned formally both from the presidency and the Society, calling himself a 'bad chairman' and pleading the strain of overwork. He was now free to devote his energies to the less demanding medium of oil and on 31 January 1859 he was elected Associate of the Royal Academy, continuing to exhibit there almost every year until his death in 1876, and becoming a full Academician in 1865.
He nevertheless 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. Such methods enabled him to manipulate the play of light on surfaces with astonishing skill, and, as this example shows to advantage, to render the complexities of different fabrics and materials, with their intricate patterns and shades of colour, with remarkable precision and cohesion. Shortly before painting this, he had described the methods by which he had studied light when in Cairo, setting up pieces of drapery to observe how the bright light dissolved the colours but could be seen in the reflections: 'His object had been to paint intense light' (cited in John Frederick Lewis R.A. 1805 - 1876 exh. cat., Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1971, p.12). This painting, one of the few examples of Lewis's finished work to have come on to the market in recent years, is a fine example of his success in dealing with this quest.
We are grateful to Briony Llewellyn for preparing this catalogue entry. Further thanks are due to Patricia Baker, Charles Newton and Caroline Williams.