The smiling Orientalist

An Anglo-Turkish moment: JF Lewis’s portrait (almost certainly) of the great Egyptologist Sir John Gardner Wilkinson

By John Scott | March 17, 2017


This witty portrait by the Orientalist painter John Frederick Lewis can be found this weekend at BADA, the British Antique Dealers’ Association’s annual fair in Chelsea (March 15–21). In Guy Peppiatt Fine Art’s catalogue notes, the art historian and JF Lewis-expert Briony Llewellyn describes the sitter in Turkish costume as ‘a fair-skinned man with a long flowing moustache and blue eyes, whose hooded eye-lids droop down at the corners. He wears a red fez over a white skull-cap, over the top of which is the hood of his large cloak or wrap. He seems to acknowledge this awkward accumulation of Oriental garb with wry amusement, accentuating his youthful looks’.

And who might this cheerful Englishman be?

Those hooded eye-lids are the give-away, says Llewellyn. They belong to the greatest Egyptologist of the day, Sir John Gardner Wilkinson (1797–1875), one of small circle of budding scholars in Cairo in the 1840s and ’50s that included the Orientalists Edward Willam Lane and Joseph Bonomi. The sketch must have been made when Lewis, after a brief sojourn in Istanbul, was living in a large wooden Ottoman mansion in Cairo, the details of which feature prominently in his best-loved paintings. Wilkinson won fame for his ground-breaking studies in Egyptology. He may appear mischievous and diffident in the portrait, but his magnificent three-volume study Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (illustrated by Bonomi) would not be surpassed for 50 years and rightly earned him a knighthood.

Lewis’s vivid likeness, captured in chalk, watercolour and bodycolour, is being exhibited by the London dealer Guy Peppiatt. The excellent catalogue notes by Llewellyn and Charles Newton are available online. As Llewellyn explains, Lewis lived in a district of Cairo which was, in Thackeray’s words, ‘‘far away from the haunts of European civilisation’. He was clearly not averse to a little ex-patriate company, nor the English in Cairo to a little dressing up.

BADA can be found at the Sloane Square end of the Kings Road. When visiting, drop into John Sandoe Books, the delightful bookshop across the road in Blacklands Terrace, the only shop in Europe to stock a complete set of Cornucopias.

(For more on JF Lewis, see Drawing from Life, by Briony Llewellyn, in Cornucopia 45)

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