John Frederick Lewis is the one of finest of the Orientalist painters. Because of his painstaking "Pre-Raphaelite" technique, his finished paintings are rare. Of all of the European and American artists to make the Eastern Pilgrimage in the nineteenth century, he was the only one to stay on for an uninterrupted ten years. He settled in the native quarters of Cairo in 1841, returning to London in 1851 with a body of work from which he drew inspiration for the next twenty-five years. His character was a paradox: his dandy nature manifested itself in London in the most fashionable and extrovert clothes and in Cairo in the robes of an Egyptian nobleman. This lifestyle was in contrast to his fervent wish to escape from the "civilisation" of city life. His greatest pleasure was to spend long periods in the desert hinterland in his encampment under the Egyptian starlit nights.

Despite the critical acclaim that his exhibits earned him, he was disheartened by the lack of financial reward. In the late 1850s he almost abandoned watercolour, exhibiting mainly, but not exclusively, in oils. In 1859, his election to Associate of the Royal Academy prompted a letter from his old friend David Roberts the next day, addressed to: John F Lewis RA, RA RA. RA, RA, RA! John Ruskin, who formed a close friendship with the artist, wrote, after his death: "Watercolour drawing can be carried no further, nothing has been left unfinished or untold." -- Sally Burgess




A Century of Master Drawings, Watercolours, and Works in Egg Tempera. London: Peter Nahum, nd.

Lewis, Major-General Michael. John Frederick Lewis. Leigh-on-Sea: F. Lewis Publishers, 1978

The Orientalists, Delacroix to Matisse. Exhibition Catalogue. London: Royal Academy, 1984.

Spring '99. London: The Fine Art Society, 1999.

Travellers beyond the Grand Tour. London: The Fine Art Society, 1980.

Last modified 10 February 2008