John Frederick Lewis, RA
by Elizabeth Malcolm
Art History Senior Thesis - Hartwick College, May 1997
John Frederick Lewis was born in London in 1805, the son of a master engraver, Frederick Christian Lewis. In the early years of his career, Lewis was primarily a painter of animals, as was his friend Edwin Landseer. The two spent much of their time studying and drawing the animals in the Exeter Change Royal Menagerie; Lewis' drawings such as Lion and Lioness circa 1820 originated there. The time between 1827 and 1832 has been called a "transitional period" by Lewis' biographer and ancestor, Michael Lewis. In 1827 Lewis moved from his family's house to set up his own studio. He also began to work almost completely in watercolor, becoming an Associate of the Old Water-Colour Society (O.W.C.S.) in March of 1827, and a full member in June of 1829. His subject matter switched from animals and sporting subjects to landscapes, interiors, and figure studies. While the number of pictures Lewis exhibited at the Royal Academy lessened significantly, fifty-four were shown at the Old Water-Colour Society during those six years.
This was also the period in which Lewis began to travel. In 1829, he accompanied his father to Devonshire and later traveled extensively in Scotland, perhaps drawn there by the landscape and genre paintings of the artists David Wilkie and David Roberts. In 1832 Lewis entered another significant period of his life and work when he left Britain to travel around Spain.
In Madrid he honed his skills by copying the great paintings of the Prado. These watercolors were acquired by the Royal Scottish Academy in 1853. From Madrid, Lewis passed through Toledo to Granada and the Alhambra. There he made many sketches of Moorish architecture, as in Courtyard of the Alhambra, circa 1834. The last major stop on Lewis' tour was Seville, a city that Lewis loved, especially during the Holy Week processions and celebrations. Before returning to England, Lewis made a short trip to Morocco where he got a first glimpse at Islamic life. In 1834 Lewis returned to London for two years during which time Sketches and Drawings of the Alhambra (1835) was published, to be followed in 1836 by Lewis' Sketches of Spain and Spanish Character.
One can imagine that Lewis had been bitten by the proverbial travel bug as he left England again in 1837, not to return for fourteen years. The winter of 1837 was spent in Paris before Lewis moved on to Florence, Naples, and finally Rome. After two years living in Rome, Lewis sent Easter Day at Rome to the O.W.C.S. in 1841. He then left for Egypt, presumably to further explore Islamic culture, which he had first encountered during his short trip to Morocco. That painting would be the last by Lewis that the O.W.C.S would receive for exhibition until 1850.