John Frederick Lewis, R.A.
- John Frederick Lewis, R.A.
Halt in the Desert
- watercolour and bodycolour over pencil on paper
- 54.5 by 39.5cm., 21½ by 15½in.
Charles Langton of Barkhill, Aigburth, Lancashire (by 1857; his sale, Christie's, London, 20 April 1901, lot 56)
Thomas Agnew & Sons (purchased at the above sale)
James Gresham, Woodheys Park in Ashton-on-Mersey (purchased from the above on 29 November 1901. Gresham, 1836-1914, was the founder of Gresham & Graven, manufacturers of brake equipment for railway vehicles, an aspiring artist, and a connoisseur of modern art), and thence by descent to the present owner
Possibly, London, Society of Painters in Water Colours, 1854 (as either Halt in the Desert, Egypt, no. 248, or Camels and Bedouins - Desert of the Red Sea, no. 305 (both listed as 'Sold'; no owner given))
Possibly, Paris, Exposition universelle, 1855, no. 1051 (as Chameaux dans le désert (lent by Lewis Pocock))
Possibly, Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy, 1856, no. 145 (as Camels in the Desert (lent by Lewis Pocock))
Manchester, Art Treasures Exhibition, 1857, no. 145 (as Camels in the Desert (lent by C. Langton))
Dublin, International Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, 1865, no. 75, as Camels in the Desert (lent by Charles Langton);
Manchester, Royal Jubilee Exhibition, 1887, no. 1588 (as Camels in the Desert (lent by C. Langton))
Glasgow, International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry, 1888, no. 1279 (lent by C. Langton)
Soon after returning to England in 1851 from ten years' residence in Cairo, John Frederick Lewis exhibited a number of similar scenes depicting Bedouin Arabs with their camels in the Sinai desert, in the vicinity of the Red Sea. With very similar and almost interchangeable titles it is nearly impossible to establish which of them can be identified with the group of desert pictures by Lewis known today. The first, Halt in the Desert – Egypt, exhibited at the Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1854 (no. 248), was described by a contemporary critic, thus: 'The halt is that of travellers with camels and their drivers, presented under an almost vertical sun, and wayfaring over the boundless and unbroken arid plain, in contemplating which the eye is relieved only by dwelling on the minute pebbles which are strewn at the feet of the camels ... but the microscopic textures, those of the coats and trappings of the animals are marvellous in execution' (Art Journal, 1854, p. 174). The critic noted this watercolour's similarity to another in the same exhibition, Camels and Bedouins, Desert of the Red Sea (no. 305), which showed the same 'extraordinary execution'. Either of these two exhibits might be identified with the watercolour presented here, or equally with the work dated 1853, currently entitled The Noonday Halt, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (no. 716). Of similar dimensions, one portrait and the other landscape in format, these two could well be regarded as 'pendants', as the Art Journal reviewer observed.
The issue of identification is further complicated by the two labels on the back-board of this watercolour, confirming its presence at one of the great art events of the Victorian age, the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857, where it was titled Camels in the Desert (no. 639), not Halt in the Desert as it is currently titled. Whether or not this is the same work as that exhibited under that title both at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855 (Chameaux dans le désert, no. 1051) and at the Royal Scottish Academy the following year (no. 145), lent by the prominent collector and patron, Lewis Pocock, is not certain, but it seems possible, particularly since it was exhibited with this title at least three more times later in the century.
The favourable critical reception of the two watercolours in 1854, and, equally important, their sale to two of the increasing number of middle-class collectors, must have encouraged Lewis to exhibit two further desert scenes at the Society of Painters in Water Colours the following year, The Well in the Desert, Egypt (no. 135; probably the work now entitled A Halt in the Desert, Victoria and Albert Museum, London) and The Greeting in the Desert, Egypt (no. 150; Shafik Gabr Collection, Cairo). Both sold and were well received, but the greatest accolades were to come in 1856 when Lewis exhibited his tour de force, A Frank Encampment in the Desert of Mt. Sinai, 1842 (SPWC, no. 134), praised by the influential Victorian critic, John Ruskin, for its microscopic attention to detail, as 'among the most wonderful pictures in the world'. He enthusiastically encouraged his readers to examine with a magnifying glass 'the eyes of the camels, and he will find there is a much painting beneath their drooping fringes as would, with most painters, be thought enough for the whole head' (Academy Notes, 1856).
By this time, Lewis was well-established as the pre-eminent painter of orientalist genre scenes, as highly regarded in this sphere as his contemporary, the scholar, Edward William Lane, was in the field of Arabist studies. Among the texts that had helped to publicise the authenticity of Lewis's portrayals of Eastern life was William Makepeace Thackeray's Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1846), which wittily presents Lewis's adoption of Egyptian customs. Not only was he 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'. At the same time, numerous surviving sketches attest to Lewis's serious study of camels and Bedouin in their tents in the Sinai desert; among them is a watercolour study for the present work, of the foreground Arab with his camel (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). Lewis's presentation for exhibition of a series of desert pictures in the mid 1850s, culminating in the magnificent A Frank Encampment, displayed both his superior knowledge of Bedouin life and his consummate skill in painting 'intense light' (J.L.Roget, A history of the 'Old Water-Colour Society, London, 1891, Vol II, p. 144). They also demonstrated his extraordinary ability, perfected as a young man, to depict the essential character of an animal; as a painter of camels, with their awkward contours and haughty demeanour, he had no equal.
Halt in the Desert passed through the possession of some notable collectors. Charles Langton (1823-1900), was a marine insurance broker from Liverpool who collected works by British artists, including Cox, De Wint, Copley Fielding, Morland, Prout and Roberts, as well as important paintings by Millais.
It then passed into the ownership of the engineer James Gresham (1836-1914), founder of Gresham and Graven, manufacturers of brake equipment for railway vehicles. When he was attending a grammar school in Newark he broke his leg and was taken to hospital in Lincoln by carriage, which overturned and further damaged his leg so badly that it was amputated above the knee. He developed his own artificial leg and with a keen mind for business he patented his design and used the money that was generated to pay for drawing lessons at the South Kensington School of Art where he met and befriended the artist William Powell Frith. It soon became clear that Gresham lacked the inspirational spark and originality to make him a great painter and when in 1856 he saw an advert for the position of a Sketching Clerk to assist the Secretary of the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, he was encouraged to apply. The exhibition was held in 1857 in the Botanical Gardens in Old Trafford and it was here that Gresham would have seen Lewis' Halt in the Desert although he did not have the opportunity to purchase it until more than half a decade later. Gresham was a connoisseur of modern art and among the many pictures in his collection were The Cave of the Storm Nymphs by Edward Poynter (sold in these rooms, 2 November 1994, lot 215), The Soldier of Marathon by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Sotheby's, New York, 20 April 2005, lot 71, formerly owned by the fashion designer Gianni Versace), The Lantern Maker's Courtship by William Holman Hunt (Manchester City Art Gallery) and La Pia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas).
We are grateful to Briony Llewelyn for preparing the catalogue note.