Lot 89
  • 89

John Frederick Lewis, R.A.

500,000 - 700,000 GBP
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  • John Frederick Lewis, R.A.
  • Greeting in the Desert, Egypt (Selamat Teiyibin)
  • signed and dated J.F. Lewis / 1855 lower right; signed and inscribed The Greeting in the Desert / "Selamat" - "Teiyibin" / J.F. Lewis on a label on the reverse
  • oil on panel
  • 44 by 61cm., 17½ by 24in.


Sale: Christie's, London, 16 May 1896, lot 38
William Volkins (purchased at the above sale)
Samuel Hope Morley, 1st Baron Hollenden (1845-1929). Samuel Hope Morley came from a prosperous family in the textile trade. He was the Governor of the Bank of England (1903-1905), and became the first Lord Hollenden in 1912. In London he lived in Grosvenor Square; his country residence was Hall Place, Leigh, in Kent. His father had been MP for both Nottingham and Bristol, and founded Morley College in Southwark.
Thence by descent to the present owners, great-grandchildren of the above


London, Royal Academy, 1856, no. 101


The Art Journal, 1856, p. 164
John Ruskin, 'Notes of Some of the Principal Pictures Exhibited at the Royal Academy', Academy Notes, 1856, pp. 17-18
The Art Journal, 1858, p. 43
Major-General J.M.H. Lewis, John Frederick Lewis, R.A. (1805-1876), 1978, Leigh-on-Sea, no. 562, p. 92
Briony Llewellyn & Charles Newton,'In Knowledge of the Orientals Quite One of Themselves,' Interpreting the Orient: Travellers in Egypt and the Near East, Reading, 2001, p. 38


This condition report has been provided by Hamish Dewar, Hamish Dewar Ltd. Fine Art Conservation, 14 Masons Yard, Duke Street, St James's, London SW1Y 6BU. Structural Condition The artist's panel is providing a secure and stable structural support. Paint Surface The paint surface has an even varnish layer and the retouchings that are visible under ultraviloet light have obviously been very carefully applied. The most significant of these cover what would appear to be fine fracture lines in the ground and paint layers which have been infilled and inpainted. These lines are: 1) running in from the upper right vertical framing edge, 2 significant lines in the lower right corner, 2) along the upper horizontal framing edge and smaller lines on the lower horizontal framing edge. There are other small dots and lines of inpainting including vertical lines on the upper left of the composition. Summary The painting therefore appears to be in good and stable condition and no further work is required. The work that has been carried out is clearly of a high standard.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

This highly important oil by Lewis can be regarded as both a prophesy and a précis. On the one hand it represents the earliest example of Lewis's practice of replicating favourite subjects in various media, and signals his interest in pursuing a career as an oil painter rather than a watercolourist. On the other hand, the exquisite rendering of incidental detail, the compelling evocation of brilliant sunlight, and the depiction of an encounter in the desert had already become celebrated hallmarks of Lewis's art.

The picture depicts a meeting between two Bedouin men, who have halted their camel caravans in the vast expanse of Egypt's Sinai desert. (The Arabic transliteration that Lewis provides in the title means 'greetings' or 'peace to you.'). They extend their right hands as if to shake in standard European fashion, but their unclasped fingers suggest that they are in fact merely touching palms, as Bedouin custom demanded. The young servant of one of the men - probably the figure on the right, as he is dressed in the same brown and white stripes - joins the scene as well, his riding stick tucked at his side. A pair of scruffy yellow Armonty dogs, whose locked gaze mirrors the men's own, completes the composition.

The men, both bearded, are distinguished one from another by their headdresses and robes. The Art Journal believed that the differences 'may define respectively the Arab of the city and the Arab of the desert, or, some other distinction of condition or country' (The Art Journal, 1856, p.164). The man on the left wears a neatly wrapped white turban, while the man on the right wears a red striped kafiya, folded diagonally. The silk cord that would typically secure the cloth to his head is absent, suggesting that the infamous desert winds have stilled - at least for now. The man's silk and cotton qumbaz (robe) displays a common blue-and-white striped pattern. It is crossed in the front and held closed by an elaborately decorated red hizam (belt). Around the man's shoulders is a heavy brown and white striped abayeh, a traditional outer garment made of coarse hand-woven wool or wool and cotton blend. 

Many of these articles of clothing - and indeed the bearded man himself - reappear in other works by Lewis. A strong case has been made that this figure is a self-portrait of the artist, dressed in Arab clothes. This twist to what at first appears to be a carefully rendered, and fairly straightforward, transcription of Middle Eastern life is typical of Lewis, and may help to explain the unending fascination of scholars, collectors, and popular audiences with his work, from the nineteenth century until today.

The left arm of this intriguing figure rests comfortably on the curve of his camel's neck. These animals were the constant companions of the Bedouin, providing them with everything from transport and commerce to food, shelter, and fuel. In his youth, Lewis had made his name as an animal painter and his expertise in the genre is well demonstrated here: from the tufts of soft hair underneath the camels' chins to their impossibly long eyelashes, to the wrinkles of skin around their lips and along their undulating necks, Lewis misses no detail of their peculiar anatomy. 

That Lewis would demonstrate such a sophisticated understanding of Bedouin culture, and, at the same time, endeavour to subvert it with the tongue-in-cheek inclusion of an ambiguous Arab figure, should be expected from an artist who spent ten years living 'far away from the haunts of European civilization' in Egypt, and whose own biography continually shifted between professionalism and playful self-fashioning.

Lewis's colourful reputation had been established in 1846 by the great Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, who had visited Lewis in Cairo. In his humorous account of his travels, Thackeray described being reunited with his old friend, in the grand old Ottoman house he now occupied. There he found not the London man-about-town he had once known, but a 'languid Lotus-eater' who led the 'dreamy, hazy, lazy, tobaccofied life' of a privileged bey (gentleman). Although comfortable in this luxurious new setting, Lewis admitted that even it had become tiresome: he much preferred to be 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 contemplations of the stars at night, as the camels were picketed, and the fires and pipes were lighted' (William Makepeace Thackeray, Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, 1846, pp. 282-91).

Unlike many artists who travelled in the Middle East, and sought to impress their audiences with a panoramic view of all they surveyed, Lewis chose to focus on a small range of subjects, and investigate them with a remarkable intensity of vision. Between 1853 and 1860, Lewis painted and exhibited no less than 10 desert scenes, whose similarities with the present work are difficult to miss (fig. 1). Although it is not clear whether Lewis intended for these paintings to be read in chronological order, or as parts of a narrative series, the temptation to do so is great.  In this context, the patterns of repetition that Lewis establishes - the same figure appearing in multiple scenarios, for example - only adds intrigue to the story.

A watercolour painting exhibited in 1856, sold in Sotheby's New York on 18 April 2008, shares a nearly identical composition with the present work (fig. 2). 

We are grateful to Dr. Emily M. Weeks for her assistance in cataloguing this work.

FIG. 1, John Frederick Lewis, Edfou, Upper Egypt, 1860, oil on panel, Tate Britain

FIG. 2, John Frederick Lewis, Greetings in the Desert, pencil, watercolour and gum arabic heightened with white, 36.8 by 49.2cm., sold Sotheby's, New York, 18 April 2008, lot 139