John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame

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Until 3 November 2019
Watts Gallery

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John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame
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 British artists to make the Eastern journey in the nineteenth century, Lewis is unique in staying for such a prolonged period. He settled in one of the Coptic 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 numerous of detailed and vivid sketches that convey his fascination for 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.


Image: John Frederick Lewis, In the Bezestein, El Khan Khalil, Cairo, 1860, Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery.

Event Details

Inspired by the exhibition...

Exhibition Tour
John Frederick Lewis:
Facing Fame
Tuesdays, 30 July, 13 & 27 August, 10 & 24 September, 8 & 22 October
2-2.45pm
Admission + £5 | Friends £4.50


Join an expert guide to explore the life and work of John Frederick Lewis, with an opportunity to ask questions and look at the exhibition in closer detail.


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Meet the Artist: Artists from The Prince's Foundation School of Traditional Arts
Tuesdays in July - October | 10.30am - 5pm
Free with admission

Visit our Artist in Residence Studio throughout the season to meet different artists who have trained in Islamic art and design, from marquetry and book illumination to miniature painting and calligraphy.


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A Glimpse of the East
Fiona Grady

9 July - 3 November
Free with admission


Throughout the exhibition, see Fiona Grady's installation, A Glimpse of the East, which responds to the patterns, light and colours in the works on show in John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame.


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Uncomfortable Art Tour: Lewis and Orientalism
Sunday 15 September, 12pm, 1pm, 2pm & 3pm
£5 | Friends £4.50

What do the works of John Frederick Lewis tell us about Victorian notions of empire? How do we interpret his work in a post-colonial context? Join art historian and museum educator, Alice Procter, for a series of exclusive exhibition tours examining issues of empire, race and historical narrative in the work of John Frederick Lewis.


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Music of the Middle East
with the Rihab Azar Trio

Friday 9 August
Doors open 6.30pm
£20 | Friends £18



Be taken on a journey through the rich maqams and rhythms of contemporary and classical Middle Eastern music with the Rihab Azar Trio, combining oud - a Syrian lute - double bass and percussion.


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Leon McCarron
The Land Beyond
A Thousand Miles on Foot through the Heart of the Middle East
Wednesday 4 September
Doors open 6.30pm
£12.50 | Friends £11.25
Age 16+

Explorer, travel writer and BBC presenter, Leon McCarron, has walked the world in search of the stories of humanity. Beginning his journey in Jerusalem, he travelled 1000 miles on foot through the heart of the Middle East in 2015. In this special evening, combining a film screening and talk, McCarron will explore the various layers of culture, history, faith and politics at work in one of the most complex places on Earth.


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Family Trail: Pursuit of Pattern
Available daily
Free with admission
Collect from the Visitor Centre


What patterns can you find in John Frederick Lewis: Facing Fame? Draw the different designs into an eight-pointed star, colour it in and cut it out at home to make a beautiful decoration.



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Watts Gallery Trust is a registered Charity. Charity No. 313612. All profits help us to provide excellent educational activities, stage critically acclaimed exhibitions, and maintain our collection, buildings and estate for future generations to enjoy.

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