This magnificent watercolour was painted at the height of the artist's powers, and was the first to be exhibited after his return to England after nearly a decade living in Cairo. Two years earlier Lewis had sent from Cairo a much larger watercolour, The Hhareem, and its ecstatic reception had marked his triumphant re-emergence on to the London art scene after a silence of nine years. The Arab Scribe, too, was enthusiastically received, the Art Journal calling it "the ne plus ultra of finish in water-colour art" (1852, p.177).
As ever with John Frederick Lewis's work, the subject is enigmatic, the more so in that the title tells us very little about the actual dynamics of the scene represented. Superficially, we and the mid-19th century viewers for whom it was intended, see a beautifully decorated interior in which two young women eagerly wait to see what the scribe has written. A domestic matter is clearly involved, but quite what is unclear. Yet a careful examination of the meticulously painted details, in conjunction with a text that was also available to Lewis's audience, E.W. Lane's comprehensive compendium of Egyptian social life (Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 1836), provide some clues that begin to unravel the narrative. The solemn 'Arab Scribe', his green turban indicating that he claims descent from the Prophet, is shown seated cross-legged, writing on a sheet of paper for one, or perhaps both, of the two women. The young woman nearest the viewer, with the henna-tipped fingers and braided hair customary among the upper-classes, is straining forward; her whole attitude conveys intense curiosity, and despite the black burqá, or face-veil that covers the lower part of her face, her anxious expression is visible. Her black-skinned companion, probably a household slave from Nubia, has raised the veil attached to her white habarah or over-dress to reveal her ambivalent expression; as if she might be sceptical about what the scribe is saying and doing. Her gesture and posture convey not credulity like her mistress, but some kind of sardonic bemusement. She is leaning carelessly on the intricately decorated box, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which contains the scribe's books, and rests her right hand on the dawat, or metal case for pens and ink, the lid of the ink-well open, ready for the scribe to dip in his pen once more. Behind the mashrabiyyah screen in the background can be discerned the shadowy figure of a man in the street outside, eavesdropping on the conversation.
Thus far, Lewis's scene seems to treat the theme of the public letter-writer in the East, familiar to his mid-19th century public from images such as Thomas Allom's Turkish Scribe, published in his Character and Costume in Turkey and Italy (c.1840) and from David Wilkie's oil painting, The Turkish Letter Writer, exhibited posthumously at the Royal Academy in 1842. Ever one to keep pace with popular taste -- and indeed his composition reflects to some degree a mirror-image of Wilkie's painting -- Lewis nevertheless adds his own particular twist to the subject, deliberately drawing attention to his 'inside' knowledge of Egyptian society, gained from his long sojourn in the country. It is not so much the perceived illiteracy of the Egyptians that he is highlighting here but the prevalence of superstition, and specifically the belief in written charms. The sayyid, whom the girls are consulting, is interpreting or copying a text from the prayer book on his lap, which may be identified as al-Jazuli's Dala'il al-Khayrat. The manuscript is open at an illustrated page with a hilyeh incorporating the names of the four Orthodox Caliphs, the basmallah and some verses from the Qur'an of which the words 'wa ma arsalnaka illa rahmat li'l-'alamin' are legible (surah al-anbiya (XXI), parts of verse 107). It seems that the women (or rather the young mistress, accompanied by her more quizzical confidante) have asked the venerable sayyid to write a talismanic prayer, possibly regarding a proposed marriage, or, if we interpret the man behind the screen as her husband, to bear him a son (or even to find another husband). More generally, as Lane had explained, 'Certain verses of the Kurán are also written upon slips of paper, and worn upon the person as safeguards against various evils, and to procure restoration to health, love and friendship, food, etc'. Curiously the text on the paper which the old man is in the process of writing is upside down, perhaps to appear legible to the viewer.
Around this central 'plot' Lewis pays equal attention to the accessories. The architecture, with the polychrome tiles of the pillar and interlaced mosaic floor, and the wooden latticed screen, is credibly Cairene, though not identifiable with a specific space. It seems also to incorporate memories of the Yesil Türbe in Bursa, where Lewis had been in 1841, before travelling to Cairo, and where he had sketched the old man writing from an open book and seated on a stone bench with ogival niches, similarly situated at the entrance (two drawings survive, one in the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, San Francisco, the other on the London art market in 2008; and many years later Lewis was to use the same figure in an oil painting, The Commentator on the Koran; interior of a royal tomb, Brussa, Asia Minor, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1869, now Elton Hall Collection). Here too is Lewis's masterly rendering of fabrics and costume -- the sumptuous coloured silks, the fringes on the carpets, the slippers with their down-trodden backs -- and, harking back to his early career as an animal painter, the extraordinarily life-like portrayal of the two cats, one somnolent, the other alert and eyeing a fluttering butterfly. Like the Dutch masters whose microscopic depiction of detail Lewis admired, even the decorative litter on the floor -- the discarded flowers and orange-peel -- plays its part in the composition.
By building up layer upon layer of authentic elements in this way and weaving them with consummate subtlety around an ethnically credible narrative, Lewis has created the illusion of an actual event taking place in a real space. Painted while his memories of the East were still fresh in his mind, this, and other tours de force like it, ensured his fame as the foremost painter of oriental life. A measure of his success can be gauged by the response of the Illustrated London News, in an article celebrating his election to the ranks of Royal Academician in 1865, which deemed him 'in knowledge of the Orientals quite one of themselves' (25 March 1865, p. 285).
We are grateful to Briony Llewellyn and Charles Newton for writing the above catalogue note, and for the research assistance of Nabil Saidi, Manijeh Bayani-Wolpert and Caroline Williams.