Begun in Constantinople in 1840, this painting was sent back to Britain in 1841 to await completion by the artist, but was left unfinished on Wilkie's sudden death later that year. It records contemporary reaction in Constantinople to the news of the Anglo-Turkish army's victory over Egyptian forces at St. Jean d'Acre (in present-day Israel), the Egyptian stronghold on the bay of Haifa, Syria, relating to the larger conflict between the Pasha of Egypt, Mehemet Ali, and the Sultan of Turkey and her European allies. A mixture of genre and history painting, this work is replete with political, social and personal allusions. It marks a crucial turning-point in the history of British Orientalist painting, constituting the first distinctly pro-Turkish painting in 19th century British art, reflecting new attitudes towards both Islam and the Turks.
Wilkie left England for the Holy Land in August 1840 with the principal intention of studying the customs, costumes, races and topography of the Near East, in order to create more historically accurate scriptural paintings. Wilkie was forced to spend three months in Constantinople, however, due to the conflict that had broken out in Syria, which culminated in the Battle of St. Jean d'Acre in 1840. The province of Syria was then comprised of present-day Syria, Lebanon, and also parts of Israel and Jordan. Mehemet Ali, Pasha of Egypt, had taken control of Syria during the early 1830s at the expense of the Sultan of Turkey. Not wishing to disturb European interests in Turkey, he had stopped short of invading Constantinople. However, Britain felt that their colonial and commercial interests were being threatened and thus allied themselves with Turkey to overthrow the Pasha. This marked a turning point in relations between Britain and Turkey, as reflected in the present painting.
The fall of St. Jean d'Acre was a momentous event for the people of Constantinople, the British, and indeed for Wilkie himself, since it permitted his safe passage on to the Holy Land. Wilkie invited Captain Leigh, an English officer in Turkey, and Mr Worthington, an engraver residing in Constantinople, to dine in celebration. The present work constitutes the only group secular painting that Wilkie executed during his Eastern tour. Only one preparatory drawing survives, showing the Tartar and five other figures (R.G. Searight Collection, London), while a further study of the messenger is known from a lithograph by Joseph Nash (Yale Centre for British Art).
The variety of facial types and costumes in this painting reflects the truly cosmopolitan nature of the capital. Their unanimously joyous reaction to the news may be intended as a testimony to the successes of the Sultan's attempts to establish equality between the various faiths, as Wilkie observed, the news, 'gladdened every one, Turk, Jew and Christian exciting the young Sultan to a kind of frenzy of joy (Life, iii, p. 338, cited in N. Tromans, David Wilkie: Painter of Everyday Life, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2002, p. 110). This painting has been compared to Wilkie's Chelsea Pensioners receiving the London Gazette announcing the Battle of Waterloo (Apsley House, The Wellington Museum, London).
Aspects of Wilkie's painting highlight key cultural differences between East and West, namely the segregation of women. Wilkie's genre painting of the 1830s had taken a decidedly feminine turn. In contrast, the Turkish cafe, the setting for this scene, has an exclusively male clientele, smoking, drinking coffee and being shaved. Nicholas Tromans, author of 2002 Dulwich exhibition catalogue, suggests that Wilkie's distancing of the viewer from the men in the painting, and his introduction of a 'buffer zone' occupied by two young girls, highlights his awkwardness at the segregation of the sexes (op.cit, p.110). Wilkie's painting of the Turkish Letter-Writter (Aberdeen Art Gallery) can be seen as a pendant to the present work. Both highlight the suppression of women and the constraints imposed by illiteracy.
Wilkie executed portraits of the new Sultan of Turkey, Abdul Meegid in 1840 (The Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace, London) and Mehemet Ali in 1841 (Tate Gallery, London).