In 1863 John Frederick Lewis’s position as the pre-eminent painter of Orientalist genre scenes was assured. For more than a decade his luxurious Eastern interiors with opulently dressed women, his bustling Cairo bazaars and his sunlit Bedouin encampments had been dazzling British art collectors and critics. Five years earlier he had been made an Associate of the Royal Academy, having relinquished the Presidency of the Society of Painters in Water-Colours to which he had recently been elected, and a year later he became a full Royal Academician. Yet his attitude towards this critical and public success was ambivalent and while enjoying the accolades that it brought him he preferred to keep at a distance from the centre of the artistic establishment, living away from London at suburban Walton-on-Thames.
Twenty years earlier he had been in Cairo, not just as a visitor, as his friend David Roberts had been in the late 1830s, but as a resident for nearly a decade. There he had adopted, in part, the lifestyle of a wealthy Ottoman merchant. In common with other long-standing European expatriates with whom he associated, Lewis lived a hybrid existence within the city’s cross-cultural community. William Makepeace Thackeray, had visited him there and in his witty, tongue-in-cheek account, Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, published in 1846, had elaborately highlighted Lewis’s luxurious Eastern lifestyle, ‘going about with a great beard and crooked sword, dressed up like an odious Turk’, and had invested his friend with an Arabian Nights-style glamour – ‘a dreamy, hazy, lazy, tobaccofied life’. Not only was Lewis the suave, urban ‘bey’, who wore ‘a very handsome grave costume of dark blue, consisting of an embroidered jacket and gaiters, and a pair of trousers, which would make a set of dresses for an English family’, but he was also the Bedouin ‘sheik’, whose ‘great pleasure of pleasures was life in the desert, - under the tents, with still more nothing to do than in Cairo; now smoking, now cantering on Arabs, and no crowd to jostle you; solemn contemplation of the stars at night, as the camels were picketed, and the fires and the pipes were lighted’.
In England, Lewis seems to have attempted to perpetuate the cultural traverse that he had experienced in Egypt, painting a series of images that presented Oriental figures with features reminiscent of his own. The present so-called ‘Memlook’ is one such, the proud untrammelled counterpart to the similarly featured pasha, portrayed by Lewis in The Hhareem (Corporate Collection, Japan and Victoria and Albert Museum, London, fig. 1). This elaborate scene of a ‘bey’ or pasha, richly attired and surrounded by his harem women, in a luxurious Ottoman-style interior was Lewis’s famously sensational first Orientalist exhibit in London (SPWC, 1850, no.147). A figure with similar features and wearing the same red Kashmir sash wound as a turban around his head, was portrayed as ‘An Arab in the Desert of Sinai’ in 1858 and exhibited that year at the Royal Academy (no.114; Shafik Gabr Collection, Cairo, fig. 2). Since neither Lewis nor his contemporaries acknowledged the resemblance to himself, the purpose of these ‘disguised’ portraits remains speculative, but it seems credible that as well as demonstrating publicly his familiarity with and understanding of Egyptian culture and his unique ability to portray this for a British audience, they were also a private conceit to enable him to relive his oriental experience.
Five years after Lewis had painted the watercolour of the ‘Memlook’, Lewis completed a version of his composition in oils on panel, exhibiting it at the Royal Academy the following year as A Memlook Bey, Egypt (RA, 1869, no.876; private collection, sold Sotheby’s, New York, 12 June 2012, lot 45, fig. 3). Unlike Lewis’s other near identical oil and watercolour versions of his compositions, these two differ significantly. The oil is extended in both length to show more of the man’s abayeh (cloak) and width to reveal the decorated hilt of the curved sword over his shoulder; the desert setting in which he stands is also indicated. More significantly the Kashmir shawl ‘turban’ has been repositioned behind the sitter’s profile so that his long pointed nose appears less prominent – an attempt perhaps to mask a giveaway feature of the artist’s physiognomy for the publicly exhibited painting.
Other than his portrayal as an imposing man of action, there is little to link this figure with the mamluks. Imported into Egypt as slaves, they became the country’s ruling élite, but they had been ousted and ruthlessly destroyed more than half a century earlier by the ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali. In both versions, Lewis has effected an unstated association of his own features with those of an Oriental character-type, with whom his public would have been familiar from their reading of both popular Orientalist tales and factual accounts, and who would have evoked both romantic and historical resonances in the imagination of his viewers.
Unlike the oil version, this watercolour was probably never on public display, but sold privately to one of the growing number of middle-class collectors eager for Lewis’s work. Peter Reid (1826-1917), from whose sale the watercolour was sold in 1917, and who was probably its first owner, was just such a collector. The son of a Scottish millwright, he became a wealthy businessman and a member of the London Stock Exchange, living at 30 Norfolk Street, Park Lane; he provided a considerable sum (£100,000) to build and endow a large convalescent home at Parkwood, Swanley, near Sevenoaks in Kent (an old label on the back of the watercolour links it with Sevenoaks). After the 1917 sale the watercolour was acquired by Sir Thomas Devitt, 1st Bart (1839-1923), a shipping magnate, son of the founder of the shipping company, Devitt and Moore, and Chairman of Lloyds Register of Shipping. Devitt owned several works by Lewis, in both oils and watercolours, notably In the Bezestein , El Khan Khalil, Cairo (oil, 1860, also known as The Carpet Seller; private collection), The Hosh (courtyard) of the House of the Coptic Patriarch, Cairo (oil, 1864; private collection) and Edfou, Upper Egypt (watercolour, 1859; The Fine Art Society, London).
We are grateful to Briony Llewellyn for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.