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John Frederick Lewis, RA

Self-Censorship in the Harem Paintings of J.F. Lewis

by Elizabeth Malcolm

Art History Senior Thesis - Hartwick College, May 1997


J.F. Lewis in Cairo

Once in Cairo, J.F. Lewis settled into apartments in the Arab quarter which are described by the author William Makepeace Thackeray in Eastern Sketches: A Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo after he visited Lewis in 1844. Thackeray also described the change in Lewis' appearance and manner from when he was a young "dandy" in London:

A man - in a long yellow gown, with a long beard somewhat tinged with gray, with his head shaved, and wearing on it first a white wadded cotton nightcap, second, a red tarboosh - made his appearance and welcomed me cordially. It was some time, as the Americans say, before I could "realize" the semillant J. of old times...

He has adapted himself outwardly, however, to the Oriental life. When he goes abroad he rides a gray horse with red housings, and has two servants to walk beside him. He wears a very handsome, grave costume of dark blue, consisting of an embroidered jacket and gaiters, and a pair of trousers, which would make a set of dresses for an English family. His beard curls nobly over his chest, his Damascus scimitar on his thigh. His red cap gives him a venerable and Bey-like appearance. There is no gewgaw or parade about him, as in some of your dandified young Agas...

Thackeray also questioned why Lewis was in Cairo at all:

Cairo is magnificently picturesque; it is fine to have palm trees in your gardens, and ride about on a camel; but after all, I was anxious to know what were the particular excitements of Eastern life, which detained J., who is a town-bred man, from his natural pleasures and occupations in London; where his family don't hear from him, where his room is still kept ready at home, and his name is on the list of his club; and where his neglected sisters tremble to think that their Frederick is going about with a beard and a crooked sword, dressed up like an odious Turk. In a "lark" such a costume may be very well; but home, London, a razor, your sister to make tea, a pair of moderate Christian breeches in lieu of those enormous Turkish shulwars, are vastly more convenient in the long run. What was it that kept him away from these decent and accustomed delights?

From the other information that Thackeray gives about Lewis, it seems that the leisurely lifestyle he had adopted pleased him more than the busy life of London. Thackeray's language reflects the Western opinion of the "Orient" and its inhabitants held at that time; the Turks, or members of the Ottoman Empire, are "odious."

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