John Frederick Lewis

John Frederick Lewis is the one of the greatest British Orientalist painters. Many of his wonderful paintings belong to private collectors and are highly sought after when they appear at auction.

Lewis was born in London in 1805, to a master engraver, Frederick Christian Lewis. It is only fair to assume that as a child Lewis must have seen the intricate work of his father, leaving an impression and love for detail from early on. Much of his earlier life was spent primarily as a painter of animals.

Head of a Fox by John Frederick Lewis

In 1827 he set up his own studio and began to work almost entirely in watercolor. Between 1827 and 1832 he underwent what is termed as a "transitional period" by Lewis' biographer and ancestor, Michael Lewis, where his subject matter changed to landscapes and figures. As a member of the Society of Painters in Watercolor, his work was highly praised, gaining him the title of president of the Society of Painters in Watercolors from 1855 through 1858.

Lilium Auratum by John Frederick Lewis, 1871

Around 1827 he started to travel with his father to Scotland, followed by trips to Spain, Italy and the East. He kept sketchbooks, documenting the wonderful sites that impressed him. These sketchbooks eventually were published as “Drawings of the Alhambra “and “Spanish Characters”. Lewis not only travelled to different regions, but he also lived in Italy and Egypt for extended periods of time.


While residing in Cairo, Lewis seemed to have taken a liking to a seemingly more relaxed life style. William Makepeace Thackeray, found him there, sporting eastern garb living the life of a Turkish pasha with attending servants and abandoning all European manners. Thackeray even went as far as giving a detailed account of Lewis dress in his “Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Cairo (1846), saying: “”He wore a handsome grave costume of dark blue … consisting of an embroidered jacket and sported a “Damascus scimitar on his thigh.”

What is very intriguing about Lewis Orientalist paintings is that he often portrayed himself as one of the characters. It is as if he would have rather been an Easterner than a member of British’s society. Dressed in oriental garb, wearing a full bearded he usually confronts the viewer head on.

The Midday Meal

“It is well documented that Lewis had a sort of love-hate relationship when it came to art connoisseurs. Publishers were, in his terms “sharks”, art critics “not overly good natured”, and collectors, on the whole, almost comical in the ease with which they could be manipulated.” (Source: Fine Art Connoisseur Feb 2007)

John Frederick Lewis, The Bezestein Bazaar, El Khan Khalil, Cairo (The Carpet Seller), 1860

In 1851, married Lewis settled down for good in England at Walton –on Thames and devoted himself for the remainder of his career almost exclusively to Eastern subjects. These he treated with extraordinary attention to minute detail. Lewis used pure white and gouache (watercolor mixed with white pigment) to create brilliant images of images of the East, developing a style that appealed greatly to the “nouveau riches” of English society.

In 1859 he became an associate of the Royal Academy and he exhibited mainly paintings of Oriental subject. John Frederick Lewis suffered a great deal in his last years, and was confined to a wheelchair by the spring of 1876. He died at home in the summer of the same year and is buried in Frimley near the Hampshire border.

Written by Enzie Shahmiri for Kennedy Publishing for Aug 2008 Issue
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