BLOG 32 10/05/2016 John Frederick Lewis: Master of Orientalism.

Posted in on 10 May, 2016 in News

John Frederick Lewis: Master of Orientalism.

John Frederick Lewis

John Frederick Lewis (1804 – 76) ranks as one of the most eminent Orientalist painters of his day. His sumptuous scenes of Ottoman life were celebrated in his lifetime for the virtuosity of their execution and the perceived authenticity of Islamic Society. His work encapsulates the fascination that the exotic East held for the West in the 19th century.  When he was elected a Royal Academician in 1865, 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 book on “Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the orient” in 1978, modern criticism has been less likely to take the works of the Orientalists at face value, often viewing them as western fantasy. Theories like this arise with paintings depicted in the harems or the bath-houses as it was a fact that hardly anyone not associated with the immediate family would have had access to the inner sanctum of the female quarters and men were excluded from female hammams. It is also true that many artists did paint their subjects in Europe yet many had already spent years travelling and living in the east. Lewis was one such artist.

Favourite of the Harem

“Favourite of the Harem”

The son of an engraver and landscape painter, whose German father had moved to England and changed his name from Ludwig, Lewis spent his early years training alongside Edwin Landseer in the workshop of Sir Thomas Lawrence. Initially Lewis, like Landseer, was an animal painter and he often included animals throughout his later works, in particular a pet gazelle which he had in Cairo. From 1840-41, he spent a year in Istanbul and Bursa and then travelled to Cairo where he lived for nine years in an old “many-windowed, many galleried” Ottoman-period house.  His friend, the essayist and novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray, visited him in 1844 and in his “Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo”, published a colourful account of Lewis’s luxurious eastern lifestyle, “going about with a great beard and crooked sword, dressed up like an odious Turk” with a  “swarthy tawny attendant, dressed in blue with a white turban”. He also goes on to describe Lewis’s invitations to smoke from “a long pipe and brass chafing dish” and his dinners of “yellow smoking pilaffs ; the pride of oriental cuisine”,  and his menagerie of exotic animals. Thackeray comments that his friend had an Arabian Nights glamour – “the dreamy, hazy, lazy, tobaccofied life”. All this sounds exotic and Lewis was not the only European artist to adopt the lifestyle of the residents.


The Kibab Shop, Scutari

“The Kibab Shop, Scutari”

The Kibab Shop, detail

“The Kibab Shop” detail shoeing Lewis as an onlooker in the background.

After his return to England in 1851, Lewis spent the rest of his days trying to recreate the “terrestrial paradise” that he left behind. Year after year he exhibited watercolours and oils of remarkable intensity filled with meticulous detail, saturated colour and brilliant effects of light and shade . This knack for hyperreal illusion resonated with the Victorian public. In “A Kibab Shop, Scutari, Asia Minor”, executed in oils, someone exclaimed that “He must paint with etching needles, so thready are his coloured tissues, so perfect his embroideries”.  Such an establishment would have been widely known by Western visitors to Scutari (Uskudar) at the time. The textures and colours of stone, wood, brick, fur, feather, ceramics and textiles are exquisite. He also displays his knowledge of the area by placing it in the vicinity of the Mihrimah Mosque, (Iskele Camii), a place that he frequented whilst he was in Scutari. This might have been painted in his studio in London but it is clearly a rich tapestry of his experience – a moment frozen in time. What’s more, on closer scrutiny, we see he had incorporated himself into the scene. This would not the first time he would do that. Was this a longing to still be a part of a world that meant so much to him? As a writer of a novel set in Greece and turkey, I can well-understand that desire.

A young Woman from Bursa

A young woman from Bursa

Grand Mosque at Brussa (Bursa)

“Grand Mosque at Brussa” (Bursa)



It’s not just his sensual portrayal of the Ottoman woman that we have come to admire, in particular the beauty of Circassian girls of the Black sea region, so adored by the upper-class Ottomans, but his skill and vitality in rendering architecture as well. His fascination with the hustle and bustle of city life enabled him to bring together all this. With such knowledge combined with an eye for detail, few Western artists have been able to match this consummate skill in portraying 19th century Ottoman life. When Lewis came to Cairo in 1841, Europeans – welcomed into Egypt as part of Muhammad Ali Pasha‘s modernisation programme – were busy ripping off the country. Consular officials were dismantling reliefs from temple walls; travellers were looting depositories of documents; dealers were tearing illustrations out of manuscripts – and artists were forging visions of harems and indolence and cruelty and passing them off as reality. Moreover, Britain had just – in coalition with Austria and the Ottoman Sultan – defeated Muhammad Ali Pasha‘s attempt to spread Egyptian hegemony into Syria. The spirit of the times would have made it natural for the 37-year-old Lewis to be part of the burgeoning imperial drive, but that was not his spirit. Lewis entered into a true relationship with the Ottoman world, and in particular with Cairo. The city gave him the colours, the light, and the architecture – all the material he needed to become a great artist.

A Mameluke Bey, Egypt

“A Mamlũk Bey, Cairo” (bearing a remarkable resemblance to Lewis himself). This painting was estimated to sell for between US$300-500 at a Sotherby’s sale in 2012 and sold for US$1,594,500

The Hharem 1849

“The Hharem” 1849

Lewis’s painting “The Hhareem” c. 1850, painted around is probably his most important painting. The central narrative is that of an Abyssinian eunuch being introduced into the harem of a  Mamlũk Bey. Whilst some might say there is an almost voyeuristic aspect about this scene, nevertheless the composition and execution is an example of Lewis’s extraordinary skill. When exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society in 1850, the painting received a great response and established Lewis spectacularly at the head of his profession. In 1855 he was elected president of the society. The scene is an amalgam of Cairene domestic studies, most likely from his own house in the Ezbekia district, and accounts of the harem from women travellers. Lewis also used his wife in many of the compositions and it’s likely that he used her in this scene as well.  “The Hhareem” gave Lewis’s audience everything they desired: a slave-dealer displays a prize beauty to an oriental nobleman surrounded by his wives and attendants. He also supplies a long description of each woman and – with the detail of the painting and the idiosyncratic spelling of its title – stakes a high claim to authoritative knowledge and artistic mastery.

Another subversive and revelatory painting is “And the Prayer of Faith Shall Save the Sick” (1872), where a beautiful woman (resembling Lewis’s wife, Marianne) reclines in her sickbed. A panel on the wall above her head bears a relief of the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor, manifested as Sekhmet; the centre of the wall is inscribed with a quotation from the Qur’an: “We have embraced the faith, so forgive us.” At the front of the picture, Lewis, turned discreetly away from the women, reads from the Holy Book.

And the Prayer of Faith Shall Save the Sick

“And the Prayer of Faith Shall Save the Sick”

In The Siesta,  the green drapes in the corner of Interior fill the centre of the picture, and through their brilliant billowing green the fluid shadows of the lattice shutters can be made out. The effect is more spacious, more relaxed than his earlier works and as the woman stretches out, napping, the painting gives a wonderful sense of repose. It may indeed be that Lewis, in the last year of his life, was trying to re-stimulate market interest in his work by going back to a “harem” subject – but he was incapable of dealing with it other than honestly.

The Siesta

“The Siesta”

His painting “Indoor Gossip, Cairo”, exhibited at The Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1874, is typical of the type of work he favoured towards the end of his life; the intense colouration of the fabrics and the effect of light through the lattice windows, combined with a hint of mystery in the subject matter. For me, the work of John Frederick Lewis gave me an inexhaustible supply of information when depicting earlier interiors in “The Embroiderer” and even now, when I pour over his works, my senses become aroused by his scenes. “The Kibab Shop,” bustles with gossip whilst in the distance the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, and the aroma of kebabs mingles with that of coffee,  tobacco, dusty sidewalks and fragrant jasmine – a snapshot of a moment in time as the Ottoman Empire crumbled.

Indoor Gossip

“Indoor Gossip”

Sources: Cornucopia Magazine, “Orientalism: Delacroix to Klee”. “The Orient in Western Art”.

       Excerpts from “The Embroiderer”.

Smyrna, May 14, 1919. Page 108.

“Dappled sunlight danced across the cobblestones as Dimitra sat on a chaise-longue underneath the Judas tree enjoying a dish of fragrant rose-petal conserve. Clad in a pale rose and apricot chemisette, she closed her eyes and lay back listening to the gentle trickling sound of water from the fountain.”

 Dimitra’s Memoirs. Page 333

“My earliest recollections of childhood are of sitting under a carob tree learning to embroider whilst listening to stories told to me by the woman who had nurtured me from birth and who I called Aunt Kuzel. She was the mistress of a fine mansion outside Chora. Two stories high, the house was built on a hill surrounded by orchards and a large garden. On the upper floor was a spacious, carpeted reception room with a gilt ceiling inscribed with passages from the Koran. The elaborately painted wooden walls were filled with closets for textiles and in small niches were displayed ornaments, vases of fresh flowers, and a Koran. Underneath the large, low windows was a raised platform with long soft cushions. From here, one could spend hours watching the ships come and go in the harbour below, and on a clear day it was possible to see the undulating hills of the Turkish coastline.”


 Buy The Embroiderer

The Embroiderer
“The Embroiderer” is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.