John Frederick Lewis was the son of Frederick Charles Lewis, the engraver, and started out himself as an engraver and etcher, becoming particularly known for his etchings of animals. He was encouraged and guided by the great animal painter Edwin Landseer. Subsequently, he travelled in Europe, making a leisurely, four-year tour ending in Constantinople, before moving to Cairo where he settled for a decade. There, he lived the life of a rich Turk, affecting native dress and customs. He returned to England with a series of watercolour pictures showing Eastern life that proved enormously popular with the British public. Lewis became an important figure in various watercolour societies, becoming President of the Society of Painters in Watercolours in 1855, although in the end he turned entirely to oil painting. He was elected ARA in 1859, and RA in 1865.
Lewis was the most important Orientalist working in England, and he became best known for his harem scenes, showing languid girls draped on couches, attended by slaves, or walking in gardens. His technique was very precise, akin to the Pre-Raphaelites, and this is especially notable in his realist depiction of flowers, and in his detailed studies of Eastern decor.
Lewis had various followers, one of whom was Ernest Normand, husband of Henrietta Rae. Lewis's work was popular enough that many important British art museums have something by him. One of his most well-known pictures is The Doubtful Coin in the Birmingham museum. An outdoor scene In the Bey's Garden is in the Harris Art Gallery, Preston.
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