A precocious talent born into an artistic family, John Frederick Lewis began to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1821 and was elected Associate of the Old Watercolour Society in 1827, at the age of only 22. While his early success was founded on skilled but conventional views of southern European subjects, it was his departure for Egypt in 1841 and his subsequent nine year residence in Cairo which provided the inspiration for his greatest works.
Quite at odds with Lewis's previous reputation as a London society gadfly, in Cairo he chose to live outside the city's European quarter. He adopted Arab dress - albeit as a wealthy Ottoman Turk - and immersed himself in the vivid and, to his eyes, extraordinary life he found in the Ezbekiyah quarter. His style soon saw a fusing of his already exemplary draughtsmanship with a new exploration of colour and atmosphere. It was these Oriental works, inspired by the mystery and sophistication of the East, that when exhibited in London from the early 1850s onwards won him widespread acclaim and earned him the respect of, among others, John Ruskin for whom Lewis was an English artist second only to J.M.W. Turner.
The present work probably dates from around 1842-43 when Lewis made two expeditions to Sinai and it abounds with characteristically adroit and sensitive pencil work. But it is perhaps the sparingly laid-in, modulated watercolour and subtly realised expressions of the men which invests it with a special poise and gravity.
'There never have been, & there never will be, any works depicting Oriental life - more truly beautiful & excellent - perhaps I might say - so beautiful & excellent. For, besides the exquisite and conscientious workmanship, the subjects painted by J.F. Lewis were perfect as representations of real scenes & people. In my later visits to England, (& it is 3 years since I was here,) I cared to go to the R.A. chiefly on account of his pictures' (letter from Edward Lear to Mrs Lewis, 22 June 1875, see V. Noakes in the catalogue of the exhibition Edward Lear 1812-1888, London, 1985, p. 21).