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Charmer Chameleon

How JF Lewis loved to paint himself into the picture

Described by his friend the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray as ‘a languid Lotus-eater’, the Victorian Orientalist JF Lewis travelled to Turkey and Egypt and recreated what he saw of Ottoman life in loving, exotic detail – often painting himself and his wife into his pictures clad in elaborate local dress. Briony Llewellyn looks back over a life of many colours

  • ‘An Arab of the Desert of Sinai’ (the Shafik Gabr Collection): This oil on panel, painted in England in 1858, reflects Lewis’s love of desert life. Seen here in one of his many guises, he wears a voluminous, boldly striped Bedouin abayah over a silk and cotton qumbaz held in place by a tooled leather belt. Instead of the traditional kufiyeh, his headgear is a patterned red Kashmir sash tied into a turban. He holds a smooth wooden bowl, from which he seems about to drink

In 1865, an article in The Illustrated London News marked John Frederick Lewis’s recent election to the ranks of the Royal Academy. It celebrated Lewis as “the eminent Oriental painter” and underlined his success within the artistic establishment by noting that “his wonderful picture of the court of the Coptic Patriarch’s Cairene house” had been hung in “the place of honour in the great East Room” at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition of the previous year.

The portrait of Lewis that accompanied the piece was engraved from a carte-de-visite albumen print taken by the well-known photographer of famous artists John Watkins, and presented to Lewis in 1864. It shows Lewis in profile, with white hair and beard, wearing the jacket, stiff white collar and necktie that conformed to the expected attire of a respectable Victorian gentleman. This image was the accepted public face of Lewis, used after his death in 1876 in an obituary and as the basis for a brass commemorative plaque in the parish church of St Mary, Walton-on-Thames, where he had lived with his wife, Marian, for the latter part of his life. Yet, in another photograph, also taken in the 1860s, p46 we find a very different image of Lewis (overleaf). For this he has donned an elaborate Ottoman costume, consisting of an embroidered jacket and baggy şalvar, with a turban wound round his head. He poses nonchalantly, hand on hip, displaying a broad sash around his waist, and a curved scimitar attached to a leather strap. It is the very costume that the central figure in Lewis’s oil painting In the Bezestein, El Khan Khalil, Cairo (previous page) is wearing as he sits in the centre of Cairo’s most famous bazaar.

The man’s features are clearly those of Lewis himself, but neither the artist nor, it seems, any of his public saw fit to mention the resemblance. What is more puzzling in this apparent lack of public recognition is that the same costume worn by Lewis in Cairo had been described by Thackeray in his 1846 account of his journey around the eastern Mediterranean, Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo: it was “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”.

Thackeray had visited Lewis in the “many-windowed, many-galleried house” that he occupied for several years during the 1840s, “far away from the haunts of European civilisation, in the Arab quarter”, and had published a delightful, tongue-in-cheek account of his friend’s luxurious Eastern lifestyle, investing him with an Arabian Nights-style glamour. “J” was “going about with a great beard and crooked sword, dressed up like an odious Turk”; he had a “swarthy tawny attendant, dressed in blue, with white turban”; he smoked from a “long pipe and a brass chafing dish”; he ate dinners of “yellow smoking pilaffs; the pride of the Oriental cuisine”; and was surrounded by a menagerie of animals. With a hint of envy, Thackeray sums up the life he led as that of “a languid Lotus-eater – a dreamy, hazy, lazy, tobaccofied life”.

Lewis’s disguised portrayal of himself as an Eastern merchant is central to the theme of John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame, an exhibition opening in July at the Watts Gallery, near Guildford, the first to be devoted solely to Lewis for many decades. Its theme is the sometimes conflicting private and public personas that Lewis cultivated and the self-fashioning of artistic and personal identity that he practised throughout his life – explored through a close scrutiny of his work and his biography.

Beginning with the pencil self-portraits he made in his youth, the exhibition traces Lewis’s development from successful animal and sporting artist to lionised painter of scenes of Eastern life. We see him reinvented as a painter of Continental and British rural genre scenes, then as the renowned “Spanish Lewis”, with his colourful and spirited depictions of Spanish life, and finally as the artist of such meticulously painted works as The Hhareem and A Frank Encampment in the Desert of Mount Sinai, pronounced by Ruskin to be “among the most wonderful pictures in the world”.

Paintings of exotically clothed women in richly decorated and light-filled Ottoman interiors; camels and Bedouin in the white heat of the Sinai desert; crowded Cairo bazaar scenes – all are based on extraordinarily skilful sketches of people and architecture accumulated during his extended sojourn in Turkey and Egypt in the 1840s. It was for these works that he was justly celebrated in his own time, and remains so today.

Running through the exhibition like a leitmotif are portraits of himself in different guises. An artistic chameleon, he changes colour and character to suit the environment in which he places himself. Whether in a rural Windsor landscape, a Scottish bothy or a Bedouin tent, he immerses himself in the subject matter by becoming a protagonist. These shifting identities are especially intriguing in a series of images that present Oriental figures that look as he did when he was living in Cairo – with a long face, large nose and a dark or greying bushy beard. The exhibition includes one of the earliest in this sequence: A Syrian Sheik, Egypt, 1856, apparently a Bedouin Arab from one region (Syria, to which Lewis did not go) displaced to another (Sinai, which he visited several times).

Even more compelling is An Arab of the Desert of Sinai (1858) (page 48) depicting the same “desert Arab” wearing almost identical robes, but with a turban made up from the red Kashmir shawl later owned by Marian. This time the figure is comfortably ensconced in a tent, relaxed and confident within his own sphere, and placed right to the fore of the picture so as to connect with the viewer. His assurance perhaps reflects Lewis’s own affinity for the perceived simplicity of desert life. As Thackeray had reported, “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”. Both text and image are intended to lead us to assume that Lewis adopted the costume and habits of the Bedouin peoples: he was the “Arab of the desert of Sinai”…

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Issue 59, June 2019 Behind Closed Doors
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