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Drawing from Life

The Orientalist Watercolours of JF Lewis

John Frederick Lewis (1804–76), was the supreme orientalist, fêted for his sumptuous Ottoman scenes. The secret of his success, says Briony Llewellyn, lies in the vivid sketches he made during his time in the East

John Frederick Lewis’s glittering scenes of Oriental life were celebrated in his lifetime for the virtuosity of their execution and the perceived authenticity of their portrayal of Islamic society. His images of men and women opulently dressed in Oriental costume, within the confines of the well-to-do Ottoman home and outside in the streets of Cairo and Istanbul, as well as in the white heat of the Egyptian desert, were widely acknowledged as real representations of Oriental life. In 1865, the year he was elected a Royal Academician, a popular journal summed up the general belief that he was “in knowledge of Orientals quite one of themselves”.

Since the publication of Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, in 1978, modern criticism has been less willing to accept Lewis’s paintings at face value, and his Orientalist subject matter has at times been seen as Western fantasy, as politically subversive and as the embodiment of colonialist paternalism. More recently, some careful critical analysis has recognised that the complexities of Lewis’s compositions defy the simplicities of the Saidian tunnel vision and he has been acknowledged as one of the most intriguing of all Orientalist artists.

How did Lewis become the “eminent Oriental painter” that he was widely held to be, reigning supreme in this “special region of Art”, to paraphrase another contemporary critic? Instead of just visiting the East, as many European artists did in the 19th century, he actually lived there for more than a decade. First he spent a year, 1840–41, in Istanbul and Bursa, then he travelled to Cairo, where he resided for nine years in an old “many-windowed, many-galleried” Ottoman-period house, as his friend William Makepeace Thackeray reported.

The brilliant essayist and novelist visited the artist there in 1844 and, in Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1846), published a colourful, tongue-in-cheek account of Lewis’s luxurious Eastern lifestyle, “going about with a great beard and crooked sword, dressed up like an odious Turk”. Describing his “swarthy tawny attendant, dressed in blue, with white turban”, his invitation to smoke from a “long pipe and a brass chafing dish”, his dinners of “yellow smoking pilaffs; the pride of the Oriental cuisine” and his menagerie of exotic animals, Thackeray invested his friend with an Arabian Nights glamour – “a dreamy, hazy, lazy, tobaccofied life”. The reality of his existence was undoubtedly more prosaic, but Lewis was not alone among European residents in wearing local dress and in adopting a hybrid lifestyle that occupied the overlapping borders of the cultural divide between East and West.

During the quarter-century that remained of his career after his return home to England in 1851, Lewis sought to re-create in paint the “terrestrial paradise” that he had left behind. Year after year, first at the Society of Painters in Water Colours, then at the Royal Academy, he exhibited watercolours and oil paintings of extraordinary intensity, remarkable for their meticulous detail, saturated colour and brilliant effects of light and shade. In each one he wove together a variety of cross-cultural threads in an apparently seamless composition, creating a hyperreal illusion of the Orient that both resonated with and challenged his Victorian public.

Take A Kibab Shop, Scutari, an oil much admired when Lewis exhibited it at the Royal Academy in 1858, seen here in the almost identical watercolour painted at the same time. It shows an eating house in Üsküdar, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, then known to foreign residents and visitors as Scutari, in which well-dressed men are seated, apparently awaiting their meal. In the murky interior a cook is making preparations over hot charcoal. The sleekly furred and feathered animals and birds in the foreground, the harmonious colour tonalities and the skilful interplay of diffused and radiant light, all exude a mood of calm contentment.

The scene encapsulates the fascination with which the “exotic” East was regarded by the West in the 19th century. Yet while Lewis is exploiting the familiar stereotype of Turkish men at ease, smoking pipes and drinking coffee, he is also perhaps equating them with the British men who frequented the gentlemen’s clubs of London to meet, drink and discuss the affairs of the day.

Turkish cafés had been represented before by Western artists, but Lewis treats the subject with unprecedented realism, rendering in exquisite detail the textures and colours of stone, brick, wood, fur, feather, fabric and ceramic. At the same time he deliberately historicises the scene, portraying Turks in traditional Ottoman dress, years after reforms had decreed the wearing of the stambouline (cutaway frock coat) and fez for Ottoman officials, though many provincial and old-fashioned Turks were still wearing the flowing robes and turbans Lewis depicts. The profusion of objects in the left booth of the shop might seem gratuitously decorative, but superior eating places were indeed well appointed, with carved wood, rich textiles, and sometimes, as here, displays of Chinese and Japanese export ceramics. Lewis further demonstrates his superior knowledge of the scene by placing it in a real location. Through the open window at the back of the shop can be seen the fountain of Ahmet III outside the mosque of Mihrimah Sultan (Iskele Camii) in Üsküdar, which he had observed first-hand during his time in Istanbul in Scutari, Stamboul (page 68). The scene is thus both specific and generic. Painted in an English studio, far from Istanbul, it is by no means just a collection of models and studio props, but a cleverly knitted together tapestry of remembered reality.

Yet on closer scrutiny, as with so many of Lewis’s compositions, this reality becomes an unsettlingly shifting one. Just what are these individuals doing? Since they seem to be merchants of various kinds, is there a narrative centred on a commercial deal? Such a subject might appeal to the middle-class collectors, newly rich from their trade in commodities, who bought Lewis’s paintings. Or is it a moment frozen in time, with no meaning whatsoever? Since the features of the figure in the background poised between two shop-booths recall those of the artist himself, are we to assume his presence in the pictorial space, involved but aloof, observing and observed, manipulating the figures within the image as well as his public who viewed it? Such are the puzzles and complexities, both physical and metaphorical, with which we are confronted when viewing Lewis’s art.

Underpinning the cleverly staged constructed “reality” of such studio productions were Lewis’s directly observed watercolour drawings of the real scenes and people encountered on his travels. He exhibited these in London as soon as he returned home, deliberately advertising his first-hand experience of his subjects and reinforcing his claim to authenticity in the pictures he created for the art market. Among these sketches are likely to have been the many that he made during the 13 months or so that he was in Istanbul and Bursa.

Remarkable for their fluency and vitality, they were admired by Lewis’s fellow artist Sir David Wilkie, who was in Istanbul at the same time: “He has been making most clever drawings, as usual.” There is evidence that these two artists, each of whom had already achieved popular and critical acclaim in his own sphere, were now sketching the same subjects, perhaps, on occasion, at the same time. Ideologically their aims were quite distinct – Wilkie was gathering sketches to transform into religious subjects, whereas Lewis was gathering the raw material to use in his elaborately conceived scenes of Eastern life – but in Istanbul they converged in their desire to record traditional customs and costumes in the face of encroaching Western culture.

As Western males, their access to Muslim domestic life was restricted, but on one occasion at least they were admitted to the “hidden domicile of a great Persian”, as Wilkie wrote. This was Prince Hulaku Mirza, a cousin of the Shah, then living in exile in Istanbul, who sat for watercolour drawings from both artists. Wilkie also drew a very young Circassian girl in his residence, who may be the same unveiled woman wearing Circassian costume magnificently sketched by Lewis. Wilkie was equivocal about her status within the household, but the sumptuous costume and languid pose of Lewis’s portrayal create an image that is more erotically charged. Women from Circassia, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, were the most highly prized members of upper-class Ottoman households.

When Lewis travelled to Bursa (which he knew as Brussa), he seems once more to have gained admittance to the home of a local family, this time one of the wealthy Armenian Christian merchants who were prominent in the city. Four Women in an Interior, Brussa has clearly been sketched from life. The expressions and poses of the women are powerfully characterised, from the languid haughtiness of the two young, elaborately dressed beauties, to the patient resignation of the serving girl, and the indulgent affection of the older chaperone.

Unlike Wilkie, Lewis did not confine himself to figure studies, but took every opportunity to explore and sketch the buildings of old “Stamboul”. When Lady Londonderry, then visiting Istanbul with her husband, the third Marquis, obtained a firman from Mustafa Reşit Pasha to visit the imperial mosques and Topkapı Palace, Lewis joined her party. He made several magnificent watercolour sketches of Aya Sofya, which capture with extraordinary accuracy the vast interior space and complex architectural forms of the Emperor Justinian’s great sixth-century building.

His acuity is equally evident in drawings of other mosques in the city, such as Sultan Ahmet Camii and Beyazıd Camii. In the latter, his delicately rendered pencil framework is given substance by the judicious use of white highlights and touches of colour, filling the scene with light and atmosphere. He has observed the busy commercial life of the courtyard and the separation of men and women, entering and emerging from the mosque through different doors.

From the number and variety of his subjects, Lewis must also have made his own independent expeditions to the old city. His fascination with the bustle of modern city life in conjunction with its architectural heritage is evident in sketches of the Avrat Pazarı (Slave Market), the Mısır Çarflısı (Egyptian Market or Spice Bazaar) and the nearby Yeni Cami, all remarkable for their spontaneity and vitality and far removed from the stereotypical Western views of the city popularised in earlier prints. His choice of subject and angle of vision were not dictated by fashionable taste but by a desire to portray people and places not seen before in the West. His drawings seem to have been executed rapidly, but include sufficient detail to capture the essence of the scene, standing as works of art in their own right, not just as the raw material for later paintings.

With sketches such as these, Lewis was able to demonstrate the veracity of his experience of the East, a quality much prized by his contemporaries. For the 25 years of his life after his return from Cairo, he used them to inform his paintings, not just structurally, but ideologically, as an authority on Islamic society. They were the touchstone to which he referred when fusing together with such subtlety his constructions of Oriental society. Few Western artists have matched the consummate skill of these drawings and their ability to bring the 19th-century East to life.

Exhibitions In 2011, two important exhibitions in London explored the qualities of fluency and immediacy that watercolour offers artists.

Watercolour at Tate Britain (February 16 – August 26)

Life, Legend, Landscape Victorian Watercolours and Landscapes at the Courtauld Galleries (February 17 – May 15)

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