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A Memlook Bey, Egypt

  • USA
  • 2012-09-25
About the object
Signed and dated JFLewis 1868 lower left
By the 1860s John Frederick Lewis was well-established in Britain as the pre-eminent painter of Orientalist genre scenes.  Living in Cairo for nearly a decade, he had made numerous sketches of Egyptian life; he had also acquired a rich collection of Eastern costume and artefacts. When he returned to England he used these to construct the elaborate compositions for which he became famous - luxurious interiors with opulently dressed women and dazzling exteriors depicting colorful bazaars or the sunlit desert - and these had received great public and critical acclaim.  Exhibiting at both the Society of Painters in Water-colours and at the Royal Academy, he had had to relinquish his Presidency and membership of the former in order to be elected to the latter.  This painting, with the title A Memlook Bey, Egypt (no. 876), was one of Lewis's five exhibits at the RA in 1869, four years after his election at that instiution.1  It represented, according to one critic, "a handsome fellow in a white abaieh [abayeh] and holding a sheathed sword upon his shoulder" (The Athenaeum, May 15, 1869, p. 674). While resident in Cairo in the 1840s, Lewis had adopted, in some measure, the lifestyle of a wealthy Ottoman merchant. In common with other long-standing European expatriates with whom he associated, Lewis lived a hybrid existence within the city's cross-cultural community. The witty essayist, William Makepeace Thackeray, had visited him there and in his colorful, tongue-in-cheek account, Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, published in 1846, had elaborately highlighted Lewis's luxurious Eastern lifestyle, "going about with a great beard and crooked sword, dressed up like an odious Turk," investing his friend with an Arabian Nights-style glamour – "a dreamy, hazy, lazy, tobaccofied life." Not only was Lewis the suave, urban "bey," who wore "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," but he was also the Bedouin "sheik," whose "great pleasure of pleasures was life in the desert, - under the tents, with still more nothing to do than in Cairo; now smoking, now cantering on Arabs, and no crowd to jostle you; solemn contemplation of the stars at night, as the camels were picketed, and the fires and the pipes were lighted."
In England, Lewis seems to have attempted to perpetuate the cultural traverse that he had experienced in Egypt with a series of images that presented Oriental figures with features reminiscent of his own.  The present so-called "Memlook" is one such, the proud untrammelled counterpart to the richly attired pasha surrounded by his harem women, portrayed by Lewis in his famously sensational first exhibit, The Hhareem (SPWC, 1850, no. 147; now Corporate Collection, Japan).  A figure with similar features and wearing the same red Kashmir sash wound as a turban around his head, was portrayed as An Arab in the Desert of Sinai in 1858 and exhibited that year at the Royal Academy (no. 114; now Shafik Gabr Collection, Cairo).  Since neither Lewis nor his contemporaries acknowledged the resemblance to himself, the purpose of these "disguised" portraits must remain speculative, but "it is possible that as well as demonstrating publicly his familiarity with and understanding of Egyptian culture and his unique ability to portray this for a British audience, they were also a private conceit to enable him to relive his oriental experience'" (Llewellyn, "Solitary Eagle"? The Public and Private Personas of John Frederick Lewis," p. 173).
As with many of Lewis's exhibited oil paintings, a watercolor version of the subject exists, which was made not for public display but probably for direct sale to one of the growing number of middle-class collectors eager for the artist's work (signed and dated 1863, watercolor and bodycolor, with gum arabic, 8 1/4  x 6 1/4  inches; private collection; see Spink-Leger, 1997, op.cit).  Many of these smaller watercolor versions are almost indistinguishable in composition from the oils, but this example differs in showing only the head and shoulders of the "memlook" and a more partial view of his decorated, curved sword; it also lacks the desert view in the background. Another significant variation is in the man's turban: the same Kashmir cloth (also seen tied as a sash on several of Lewis's Oriental women) is arranged away from his face, revealing his features more clearly, in particular his prominent nose.
Other than his portrayal as an imposing man of action, there is little to link this figure with the mamluks.  Imported into Egypt as slaves, they became the country's ruling élite, but they had been ousted and ruthlessly destroyed more than half a century earlier by the ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali. In both versions, Lewis has effected an unstated association of his own features with those of an Oriental character-type, with whom his public would have been familiar from their reading of both popular Orientalist tales and factual accounts, and who would have evoked both romantic and historical resonances in the imagination of his viewers.
We would like to thank Briony Llewellyn for writing this catalogue entry
1 The present work formerly had an old label attached to verso inscribed A Mimlook. Remaining is a label for Charles Roberson & Co, Artists' Colourmen. Charles Roberson and Co. were one of the major suppliers of artists' materials of the 19th and early 20th centuries, used extensively by Lewis after his return from Egypt, between 1852 and 1875.  Operating from premises in Long Acre, London (from 1853, at No.99) their customers included many of best-known artists of the day. See the Roberson Archive, Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge, and the selective directory of "British artists' suppliers" available via the website of the National Portrait Gallery London:

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