The four women in this exquisite watercolour by John Frederick Lewis are likely to have been sketched from life, in situ in their own home, in Bursa. The individualised features and detailed costume, of the elaborately dressed ladies of the house on the left and the more simply attired women of lesser status on the right, are evidence of direct, first-hand observation. Their expressions and poses, ranging from the languid haughtiness of the two young beauties, to the patient resignation of the serving girl, and the indulgent affection of the older chaperone, are powerfully characterised. It is clear, too, that these are not Western women wearing Turkish dress, but members of a close-knit local household, who had accepted a European artist into their midst. Being unveiled, they are, however, unlikely to be Muslim, but, rather, Christians of an Eastern denomination. Armenians were prominent in Bursa in the nineteenth century since the city was one of the most important centres for the production and trade in silk in Ottoman Turkey, and it is possible that Lewis gained an entry into the residence of one of these wealthy merchant families.
Lewis had travelled to Turkey in October 1840, his arrival in Istanbul recorded by his fellow artist, David Wilkie, who wrote to his brother: 'We have encountered John Lewis - from Greece and Smyrna. He is making numbers of drawings'. The following day he reported in another letter, 'He has been making most clever drawings, as usual'. Both artists lodged at the 'Casa di Giuseppina', whose Greek landlady was 'a celebrated beauty', and whom Wilkie, and perhaps Lewis, sketched. Like Wilkie and other members of the European community in Istanbul at this time, Lewis's activities are likely to have been centred in Pera on the other side of the Golden Horn from old 'Stamboul', but he also took the opportunity offered to him by Lady Londonderry to join her party in visiting some of the important mosques in the old city, and, judging by the number and variety of his surviving sketches, he seems to have made independent visits to other Muslim areas, such as the Avrat Pazari (Slave Market), near the Nurosmaniye Cami (see Briony Llewellyn, 'David Wilkie and John Frederick Lewis in Constantinople, 1840: an artistic dialogue', Burlington Magazine, September 2003, CXLV, pp. 624-31). Sometime in 1841, he made a trip to Bursa (then called 'Brussa' or 'Broussa') where he made some exceptionally fine drawings of both local people and the principal Islamic monuments - the Yesil Tribe and the Ulu Cami.
Among Lewis's figure studies in Bursa are three that are likely to relate to the present watercolour. One, also signed and inscribed 'Brussa 1841', seems to depict the same two sumptuously dressed young women, in similar decorative poses (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester). The other two are almost identical portrayals of a female, whose sultry looks, with pouting lips and receding chin, seem to identify her with the figure on the extreme left of the watercolour here (one with Trinity Fine Art , 2007, also inscribed 'Brussa'; the other, British Museum, London, traditionally titled 'Armenian Girl'). It is also possible that the present watercolour is the one exhibited by Lewis at the Royal Academy in 1870, along with seven others, with the title 'An Armenian family, Asia Minor'; and it is perhaps also the same as the 'Armenian Ladies: Brussa 1841' in the sale of Lewis's works held at Christie's after his death in 1876.
We are grateful to Briony Llewellyn for writing the above catalogue entry.