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An Englishman Abroad: John Frederick Lewis

The Victorians had a taste for the exotic. The chance to be transported, as if on a magic carpet, away from rainy, smoky Britain to the delights of the East. And so they were captivated by the pictures John Frederick Lewis made of Egypt. Drawings and paintings so full of detail, so full of local colour, they were seen by his contemporaries as "accurately and intimately true". 

John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame at the Watts Gallery in Compton, Surrey traces the story of an English artist who not only travelled to the Orient, he was so wooed by it that he stayed in Cairo for a decade. And who, when he eventually returned to Britain, continued to paint Oriental-inspired scenes.

"There was something un-English about him," John Ruskin said. 

And here we are in Cairo's El Khan Khalil textile market. Full of colourful fabrics and carpets, turbanned extras, the obligatory sleeping dog and an Islamic arch. And in the foreground, a prosperous merchant himself, in splendid local costume with a fine pair of shoes with turned-up pointy toes. 
But this is no real merchant: This is John Frederick Lewis himself in disguise. Shod to walk like an Egyptian.

We've been here before: Oriental Visions, which has just closed in Paris, showed us how French artists manipulated their depictions of the East to make them appear much more sensual, presenting us with scenes they never could have witnessed in real life. 

By putting himself in the picture, Lewis seems not to have been averse to manipulating images either. And, of course, how many people in England in the late 19th century could judge just how "accurately and intimately true" his pictures of Cairo were? But in contrast to many of his French counterparts, Lewis appears to have found exotic enough subject matter in the shapes and intricacies of Arab architecture, the colours and patterns of clothing and fabrics. No imagined odalisques in flimsy costumes, no naked massages in Turkish baths are to be found in this show.   

This is the first exhibition to explore Lewis's work in more than 40 years, so you're unlikely to know much about him. Born in 1802, he had no formal art training but enjoyed early success as an animal and sporting painter. A friend of Edwin Landseer, later to create The Monarch of the Glen, his skill is clear from early drawings. He sought to present himself as a Regency gentlemen but then caught the travel bug, with trips down the Rhine and to Venice in the late 1820s, and to Spain in the 1830s. He turned into a bohemian and "learnt to smoke much and shave little," as a fellow artist recalled.    

Lewis then ventured even further afield, to Greece and Turkey in about 1840 before settling in Cairo in 1841, and it's drawings and paintings from the eastern Mediterranean that make up the main section of this show. Studies from Turkey highlight a growing interest in traditional dress, while pencil-and-watercolour drawings reveal a fascination with architectural shapes, lattices, archways, and awnings draped across streets. An unfinished picture of the female slave market in Istanbul, done from memory or covertly, meticulously depicts what's happening in the galleries around the edges. but completely omits the central motif; there's a blank in the middle where you might expect the slaves to be. It's a world away from the titillating nudity of Jean-Léon Gérôme's Slave Market, a picture we saw in Paris.  

Back in Britain in the 1850s, Lewis was armed with vast quantities of material in his sketchbooks. Twenty years later, he was still painting the textile market, reiterating the motifs he loved. 
In truth, his Orient appears a little sanitised. You might expect the colours to be a bit more washed-out by the sun, the surroundings to be a bit dirtier and dustier than they are painted. But Lewis was presenting, it seems, his own personal vision. And so this splendid, fierce-looking Bedouin chieftain, armed with rifle and dagger, again appears to have the features of Lewis himself. 
Lewis became a Royal Academician in 1865, and the painting he submitted as his diploma work, The Door of a Cafe in Cairo, is a complex view from the outside to the inside, full of gorgeous colour, intricate architectural detail, men of noble bearing, exotic props, and a cute kitten. A sure-fire success!

The painter found a ready market for his work. Exotic genre paintings such as this Pipe Bearer were popular with newly rich middle-class buyers, prosperous manufacturers and the like. There's a lot going on in this picture: the curls of the pipe, the curves of the archways, the look through the doorway, the servant's foot on the threshold, the tiles and the fall of the light.
Even though Lewis had worked his way into Britain's artistic elite, he wasn't really part of it. "He never dined with us, as our other painter friends did," said Ruskin. And he didn't live and paint in London, but in Surrey, in the market town of Walton-on-Thames, with his wife Marian.

And this is Marian, who according to the title of the picture, is In the Bey’s Garden, but this garden is probably not the property of a distinguished Ottoman official -- it's much more likely to be a scene from Walton with the oriental poppies brightening up the flower border.
What sort of life did Lewis lead back in Britain? A housemaster from Eton College wrote to Lewis in 1875 about his "little visit to your Oriental Tent at Walton." Perhaps there was something a little bit more adventurous than cucumber sandwiches for tea.

And plenty of time to remember Egypt.... The Siesta appears to show Marian again, shaded from the heat of the afternoon sun in an airy lattice-work pavilion, with a distant view down to the cooling river, complete with a mosque-like building. Ah, Walton-on-the-Nile....
Orientalism will be big on the artistic agenda this autumn, with a major exhibition just announced at the British Museum. This small but absorbing show at the Watts Gallery provides an early taster.


John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame runs at the Watts Gallery in Compton, near Guildford, until November 3. It's open daily from 1030 to 1700. Tickets to the gallery complex, which include the collection of works by GF Watts ('England's Michelangelo' for the Victorians) cost £11.50, or £12.70 with a Gift Aid donation, and can be bought online here.

Compton is just off the A3 if you're travelling by car, but it's easy to get to by public transport: Take a train to Guildford, from where the 46 bus runs direct to the gallery once an hour, taking just 10 minutes. On a fine day, it's perfectly possible to walk from Guildford on an easy route in a little over an hour via the North Downs Way, which goes right to the Watts Gallery.


John Frederick Lewis, In the Bezestein, El Khan Khalil, Cairo, c. 1860, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery
John Frederick Lewis, The Bezestein Bazaar of El Khan Khalil, Cairo, 1872, Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford)
John Frederick Lewis, A Syrian Sheik, Egypt, 1856, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
John Frederick Lewis, The Pipe Bearer, 1859, Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery (The Higgins Bedford)
John Frederick Lewis, In the Bey’s Garden, 1865, Harris Museum, Art Gallery & Library, Preston
John Frederick Lewis, The Siesta, 1876, Tate


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