A Frank Encampment in the Desert of Mount Sinai. 1842 — The Convent of St. Catherine in the Distance. John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876). 1856. Watercolor, gouache and graphite on slightly textured, beige wove paper mounted on board. 26 1/4 x 53 1/2 inches (66.7 x 135.9 cm) Frame: 32 x 59 x 2 3/4 inches (81.3 x 149.9 x 7 cm). Signed in pen and brown ink, lower right: "J.F. Lewis 1856." Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection (Prints and Drawings). Accession Number: B1977.14.143 (facts and figures all taken from the Collection's entry). The work itself has been released under the Creative Commons license: see bibliography for the link. [Click here to see the painting in its frame, and click on all images to enlarge them.]

Close-up of Lord Castlereagh reclining in native dress.

This work was painted after Lewis's return to England. It shows Viscount Castlereagh, in native dress, receiving a local Beduin, Shiek Hussein of Gabal Tor (Mount Sinai) who will become his guide on his onward journey through the desert. It might have been a work commissioned by Castlereagh in 1842, as Morna O'Neill suggests in the Mellon Centre commentary. But it is not known if Lewis even saw this scene, in which the Shiek seems ill-at-ease in front of the nonchalantly slumped Westerner, who looks for all the world as if he owned the desert himself. Castlereagh has certainly helped himself to what it has to offer, as the trophies of the hunt attest, and in some respects (with his pet dogs, nearby decanter, books etc) has made himself perfectly at home here. This is, as Nicholas Tromans points out, the reverse of what one might expect.

Ruskin praised the painting to the skies when he saw it that year on show at the Society of Painters in Water-Colours, finding "so much painting" even in the camel's eyes, "as would, with most painters, be thought enough for the whole head" (qtd in Lambourne 105). Still, it is a teasing picture, leaving the curious observer to wonder what exactly was going on in the two principal subjects' heads — and in the artist's, head, too! — Jacqueline Banerjee

Related material


Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London & New York: Phaidon, 1999.

O'Neill, Morna. Curatorial comment. A Frank Encampment....". Yale Centre for British Art. Web. 2 January 2017.

Tromans, Nicholas. "The Orient in Perspective." In The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting. Ed. Tromans. London: Tate, 2008. 102-25.

Created 2 January 2018