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John Frederick Lewis was a painter and watercolourist of animals, landscape, and genre, especially Spanish and oriental subjects. He is one of the most important Orientalist painters and produced over two-thousand sketches, watercolour drawings, and paintings. As a boy Lewis studied animals with Edwin Landseer, and accordingly much of his early works are of animal subjects. In 1820 he began to exhibit at the British Institution, and at the Royal Academy one year later. Around 1825 he turned to watercolours, and soon after was elected Associate of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1827 (he was made a member in 1829).

In 1835 after spending two years in Spain, Lewis published Sketches and Drawings of the Alhambra with lithographs by J.D. Harding, along with other books of Spanish views. He then spent another two years abroad, this time in Rome. From Rome Lewis set out for Greece and the Middle East.

Having spent the 1830s as “a kind of aristocratic vagabond wandering about Europe and the Middle East,” [1] Lewis spent a decade from 1840 living in Cairo. He was by no means the first professional artist to make this oriental pilgrimage, but he was the only one to spend that amount of time living there. Whilst there he lived a basic existence and made a large number of sketches which he later built up into larger oils. From 1841 to 1850 he did not exhibit in London, but in 1850 his watercolour The Hareem, created a sensation. Ruskin praised it as “faultlessly marvellous” and hailed Lewis as a leading Pre-Raphaelite. Although Lewis used similar technical methods to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painters, he was never associated with them.

Lewis was elected President of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1855, but resigned in 1858 to take up oil-painting again. In both his oils and his watercolours, Lewis was a meticulous craftsman, combining to a remarkable degree detailed observation, jewelled colour, and effects of light. In 1859 Lewis was made an Associate of the Royal Academy, becoming a full Royal Academian in 1865.

[1] Adrian Bury, “Our Great Water Colour Tradition”, The Artist, Vol. 52 no. 4, Dec. 1956

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