Search the Collections

John Frederick Lewis
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Walton-on-Thames, U.K.
English artist John Frederick Lewis is chiefly remembered as one of the leading Orientalist painters of the 19th century, but early in his career focused on depictions of animals and then received the sobriquet “Spanish Lewis” for his prints, drawings and paintings showing scenes from Spain. Born in London in 1804, his father Frederick Christian Lewis (1779-1856) was a painter and engraver, from whom he received his artistic training. With their neighbor Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) Lewis drew studies of animals shown in London menageries. He exhibited sporting scenes and works depicting animals at the British Institution beginning in 1820 and exhibited similar works at the Royal Academy of Arts during the 1820s. His set of six of six etchings with mezzotint, “Lewis’ Lions: Six Studies of Wild Animals” was published by William Bernard Cooke (1778-1855) in 1825, with a set of twelve sporting scenes and animals published the following year. He then turned to watercolor, exhibiting at the Society of Painters in Water Colours (also known as the Old Watercolour Society) and becoming an associate member in 1827 and a full member in 1829. After a trip to Germany, Italy, the Low Countries and Switzerland he turned to landscapes and genre scenes. His trip to Spain starting in 1832 led to numerous watercolors and sketches. After visiting Morocco and Paris, he returned to England, where he showed his works at the exhibitions of the Royal Academy and the Old Watercolour Society. Lewis published two sets of lithographs based on his time in Spain, “Sketches and Drawings of the Alhambra” in 1835 and “Sketches of Spain and Spanish Subjects” in 1836. He returned to Paris in late 1837 to begin a journey to southern Europe, the Near East and Egypt lasting until 1851. After stops in Rome, Corfu, Athens and Smyrna (now Izmir), Lewis reached Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1840, where he met fellow English artist David Wilkie (1785-1841). His explorations included the city of Bursa, across the Sea of Marmara south of Constantinople, recorded in his surviving sketches. In late 1841 he was on his way to Cairo, where he lived for nearly ten years in a large mansion formerly occupied by a Mamluk noble. What little that is known about Lewis’s life in Cairo comes from letters and reports by various Britons who met Lewis while traveling through Egypt and letters and diaries of European expatriates living in Cairo. It appears that his mansion was something of a social center for Europeans. A visit in 1842 by Frederick William Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh (1805-1872), led to a commission. William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) visited Lewis in 1844, and described his visit in “Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo,” first published in 1846. Thackeray described Lewis’s luxurious life as that of “a languid lotus-eater.” Another commission was a portrait of Egypt’s ruler, the Pasha Muhammad ‘Ali (ruled ca. 1805-1849), done in 1844 (London: Victoria & Albert Museum). In 1847 Lewis married Marian Harper (ca. 1826-1906) from Hampton, Middlesex, whose uncle was a judge in Malta; she was twenty-two years his junior. Contemporary accounts suggested that Lewis would have to end his rakish bachelor life for domestic pursuits. Although he made hundreds of watercolors and sketches while in Egypt, Lewis sent only one work back to England for exhibition, a large watercolor “The Hhareem” (1849, private collection, Japan), depicting a young Bey and three of his wives inspecting a slave girl (a candidate for the harem) being disrobed by an attendant. When exhibited at the Old Watercolour Society in 1850, it caused a sensation. Probably encouraged by the work’s favorable reception, in 1851 Lewis and his wife returned to London. Three years later they purchased a house in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, southwest of London. In addition to drawings, sketches and watercolors, Lewis brought numerous Oriental costumes and props with him from Egypt, and these would figure in the watercolors and later oils he produced at regular intervals. Many of the female figures appeared to be Europeans, and some scholars suggest that his wife Marian was a frequent model. Some of the interiors he depicted may have been based on the interior of his mansion in Cairo. Figures, costumes and locations were often re-used in subsequent paintings. His 1856 watercolor “A Frank Encampment in the Desert of Mount Sinai” (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art), the result of his commission from Viscount Castlereagh, was praised by the critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) when it was displayed by the Old Watercolor Society. Following Ruskin’s suggestion Lewis began painting in oils, in 1858 resigned as president of the Old Watercolor Society, and was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy in 1859 and a full member in 1864. Lewis continued painting until his death, although less frequently as his health declined. He died at his home in 1876. (TNB 8/2015) Selected bibliography: Weeks, Emily M. Cultures Crossed: John Frederick Lewis and the Art of Orientalism. New Haven and London: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2014. Williams, Caroline. “John Frederick Lewis: ‘Reflections of Reality,’” in Muqarnas, vol.18 (2001), pp. 227-243.