John Frederick Lewis, R.A.
14 July 1804 - 15 August 1876)
Painter of Italian, Spanish, and oriental subjects, was the eldest son of Frederick Christian Lewis [q. v.] the engraver, and was born in Foley Street, London, in 1805, in the same house (it is said) as Edwin Landseer [q. v.], with whose family the Lewises were intimate. He received his first instruction from his father, and began to etch while still a boy. Some of his early etchings, principally after pictures by Dutch masters, are in the British Museum, but the first bent of his art was toward animals, which he used to study at the menagerie in Exeter 'Change. His father agreed that he should be a painter if he exhibited and sold a picture. This he did in 1820, his first exhibited picture in the British Institution being bought by George Garrard, A.R.A., the animal painter. In 1821, he exhibited at the Society of Painters in Oil and Water Colours (now the Royal Society of Painters in Water-colours) and at the Royal Academy, his contributions to the latter being ‘Puppies’ and ‘The Intruding Cur,’ which were followed in 1822 and 1823, by portraits of dogs and horses, and a picture of a monkey who has broken a mirror in trying to get at its image in the glass. This was called ‘Fatal Curiosity,’ and was praised by Stothard. His first large picture, ‘Deer-shooting at Belhus, Essex,’ was bought by Hurst and Robinson, and he soon attracted the attention of Northcote, who purchased some of his sketches of animals, and introduced him to Sir Thomas Lawrence, by whom he was engaged to put in backgrounds and animals for his portraits.
Six studies of wild animals, etched and mezzotinted by himself, were published by W. B. Cooke of Soho Square about 1825. These were afterwards the subject of eloquent praise by Mr. Ruskin. He was at this time employed by George IV. on deer and sporting subjects at Windsor. In 1824, he exhibited at the Royal Academy a picture of a lion and lioness, and in 1826, his father published ‘Twelve Etchings of Domestic Subjects,’ etc., by him. These were pure etchings, without mezzotint, and included some of his studies at Windsor. At this time he had a preference for water-colour, and in 1827, was elected an associate of the (now Royal) Society of Painters in Water-colours, sending to their exhibition of this year two drawings of ‘Vanquished Lions’ and ‘A Dying Lioness.’ Among his pictures at the Royal Academy this year was an ‘Eagle disturbed at his Prey by a Lioness,’ but after this time, though he continued to send to the Royal Academy exhibitions, his contributions were for many years of inferior importance to the drawings he sent to the Water-colour Society, of which he was elected a full member in 1829.
In 1827, he left his father's house and went to live at 21 St. John's Wood Road, and about this time took a tour in Tyrol and Italy, the effects of which were visible in his exhibited works of 1828 and following years till 1831, when his drawings of ‘Peasant Studies in the Highlands of Scotland’ showed that he had been to North Britain. In 1832, he exhibited his most important drawing of this period, ‘Highland Hospitality,’ which was engraved in mezzotint by William Giles. Though he never lost his love of animals, he had now abandoned his exclusive aim as an animal painter, and the whole scope of his art was altered and developed by his visit to Spain (1832–1834). His drawings for the next three or four years were devoted to Spanish subjects, remarkable for their fine style and colouring. They included studies of the people, street scenes, church interiors, bullfights, and some incidents of the Carlist war. Perhaps the most important of the last class was ‘A Spy of the Christino Army brought before the Carlist general-in-chief, Zumalcarragui,’ exhibited at the Water-colour Society in 1837. It is engraved (on wood) in the ‘Art Journal’ for 1858. In 1838, he was in Paris, where he executed ‘Murillo painting the Virgin in the Franciscan Convent at Seville,’ and ‘The Pillage of a Convent by Guerilla Soldiers,’ both of which were exhibited in that year. These drawings, with one of a ‘Devotional Procession in Toledo,’ 1841, may be said to mark the end of his Spanish period. During this time his contributions to the Royal Academy were confined to studies of single figures. The fame of ‘Spanish’ Lewis, as he was then called, was increased by the publication of two series of lithographs, ‘Sketches and Drawings of the Alhambra,’ published 1835, and ‘Lewis's Sketches of Spain and Spanish Character,’ 1836, in the first of which he was assisted by J. D. Harding [q. v.], who drew some of the subjects on the stone. In 1838, he appeared as the lithographer of another man's drawings, in a volume uniform with his own, ‘Illustrations of Constantinople,’ by Coke Smith. Many of his Spanish drawings were engraved on a large scale.
Between 1838 and 1850, Lewis made no sign as an artist, except by two drawings sent to the society's exhibition in 1841, one of which has been mentioned. The other was an important drawing of ‘Easterday at Rome.’ He appears to have suffered from ill-health, and to have resided at Rome for some time, but he quitted that city for travels towards the East in 1839. In 1840, he went to Corfu and Albania, made sketches in Janina and the Pindus, nearly died of fever in the Gulf of Corinth, but went on to Athens and Constantinople, where he met and bid a last farewell to Wilkie, who died on the voyage home. The summer of 1842, was spent in Asia Minor and the winter at Cairo. In 1843, he made excursions to Mount Sinai, and up the Nile into Nubia, etc. In 1844, Thackeray, an old friend of his, visited him in Cairo, and found him established in the Arab quarter in the most complete oriental fashion. But even Cairo was too civilised for him at that time, and he preferred the life of the desert, under the tents and the stars.
In 1848, the name of Lewis, who had contributed nothing to the exhibitions of the society since 1841, and had given no reasons for the neglect, was withdrawn from the list of members, but on a promise to conform to the rules he was re-elected a member. He did not contribute again, however, till 1850, when he sent a picture of ‘The Hareem,’ which created a sensation.
This was the first of the drawings of his last or ‘oriental’ period, in which he developed a new style of manipulation, very minute in touch but extremely broad in effect, and, with extreme elaboration of detail and a brilliant complexity of light and shade, retaining all his old mastery of draughtsmanship and fine feeling for colour. The novelty of the first drawings in this style was emphasised by the new spirit in which his subjects were treated -- the spirit, not of a traveller in search of the picturesque, but one who by a long sojourn in a strange country had become intimate with the character of the inhabitants and familiar with their mode of life.
In 1851, he returned to England, and after a short stay at 6 Upper Hornton Villas, Campden Hill, he married and settled at ‘The Holme’ at Walton-on-the-Thames, where he resided for the remainder of his life, working out the result of his eastern studies with endless patience and consummate skill. In 1852, appeared his second Egyptian drawing, ‘An Arab Scribe, Cairo,’ a work of distinct character and high finish; and though he did not send anything to the next exhibition of the Water-colour Society, he became again an annual exhibitor in 1854, when he also made his reappearance at the Royal Academy. The drawings of ‘Camels and Bedouins,’ 1854, and ‘The Well in the Desert’ and ‘The Greeting in the Desert,’ 1855, with their truthful representation of Arab life in the desert, then a novelty in art, and by their masterly rendering of shade and sunshine, greatly increased his fame. In 1856, Lewis was elected president of the Water-colour Society (in place of Copley Fielding, who had died in the previous year), and sent a drawing in body-colour to its exhibition -- ‘A Frank Encampment in the Desert of Mount Sinai,’ 1842 -- which drew from Mr. Ruskin this notable encomium: ‘I have no hesitation in ranking it among the most wonderful pictures in the world; nor do I believe that, since the death of Paul Veronese, anything has been painted comparable to it in its own line’.
In 1858, Lewis, finding that oil pictures paid better than water-colours, resigned his presidency and membership of the Water-colour Society, and set himself to win the honours of the Royal Academy, of which he was elected an associate in the following year, and a full member in 1865. In 1866, he exhibited his diploma picture, ‘The Door of a Café in Cairo,’ and of the rest of his life the main record is to be found in the catalogues of the Royal Academy. The pictures of this period were founded on his Eastern sketches, and fully sustained, if they did not materially add to, his reputation. In 1876, he retired from the Academy, and he died at Walton-on-Thames on 15 Aug. in the same year. He was buried at Frimley, Surrey.
The works remaining in his possession at his death were sold at Christie's in May 1877. Several of his works in water-colour, chiefly studies and sketches, are in the South Kensington Museum. A set of over sixty small studies from the old masters, with a view of the Tribune at Florence, are in the National Gallery of Scotland. They were purchased by the Royal Scottish Academy in 1853, in which year Lewis was made an honorary member of that institution.
[Redgraves' Century of Painters, 1890; Redgrave's Dict. 1878; Bryan's Dict. (Graves and Armstrong); Art Journal, 1858 and 1876; Ruskin's Pre-Raphaelitism, Notes on the Principal Pictures of 1856, and Modern Painters; Roget's Hist. of the Old Water-colour Society.]
View artist's work: John Frederick Lewis, R.A., (1804-1876)