John Frederick Lewis

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9 July 2019 - 3 November 2019
Watts Gallery

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Tuesday 9 July – Sunday 3 November 2019
Watts Gallery
Friends free

An exhibition dedicated to exploring the life and art of the Victorian Orientalist artist John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876).

Between 1827 and 1840 Lewis made numerous trips to Europe, travelling through Spain and Italy. From 1840, he travelled to Constantinople and on to Cairo in 1841 where he remained, detached from the London art scene, for a decade. Of all of the European artists to make the Eastern pilgrimage in the nineteenth century, Lewis is unique in staying for such a prolonged period. He settled in the Islamic quarters of Cairo where he lived in a traditional upper-class house, which would provide the backdrop for many compositions. During this period, Lewis created an array of detailed and vivid sketches that convey his fascination in the architecture, light and exoticism of the region. When Lewis returned to London in 1851 he brought with him a substantial body of work that would provide a wealth of inspiration for the rest of his artistic career.

This exhibition will be underpinned by an exploration of Lewis's evolving and experimental self-fashioning. While living in Cairo, he was famously described as a 'languid Lotus-eater' leading a 'dreamy, hazy, lazy, tobaccofied life' by his close friend William Makepeace Thackeray. Despite being absent from the London art world for a decade, on his return he was received with critical acclaim assimilating straight into the heart of the establishment. This public role did not necessarily sit easily on his shoulders. Elected President of the Society of Painters in Water Colours in November 1855, he resigned little more than two years later. Ruskin later commented on Lewis's apparent detachment: 'There was something un-English about him, which separated him from the good-humoured groups of established fame whose members abetted and jested with each other… He never dined with us, as our other painter friends did'.

Exhibiting an array of Lewis's work from across his career, this exhibition will explore the paradoxical tensions that exist between Lewis's varying personas, from young dandy to 'languid Lotus-eater', leader of the establishment to eccentric recluse.


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