This report originally appeared on H-Net (Humanities and Social Sciences Online), and has been adapted and reformatted for our website, and illustrated, by Jacqueline Banerjee. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the source and (2) link your document to this URL or credit the Victorian Web in a print one. Click on the images to enlarge them, and for more information where available.]


Front cover of the catalogue of the exhibition.

In keeping with its policy of organising conferences and study days in connection with major Exhibitions, the Tate management mounted an international symposium on 13 June 2008, to complement its excellent "The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting" Exhibition of that year (see references for link). After a general presentation by Paul Goodwin (Cross Cultural Curator, Tate Britain), the first session, on "Orientalism and Art Histories," was introduced by its Chair, Christine Riding (Curator, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British Art, Tate Britain, and co-curator of the Exhibition).

Portraits "At the Margins of British Orientalism"

The first speaker was Professor Mary Roberts (John Schaeffer Associate Professor of British Art, University of Sydney). Discussing portraits "At the Margins of British Orientalism," Professor Roberts started with the example of David Wilkie, suggesting that the genre allowed a range of aesthetic forms, including photographic parodies and "Ottoman Orientalism." If one speaks of an "indigenous engagement with Orientalism", she said, one may suggest the addition of Middle East participants to the logic of European Orientalism. The cross-cultural boundaries are renegotiated by the arts — in this instance portraits — with an interplay between self and other and centre and periphery, pointing to the contingency of boundaries formation. Another example would be that of John Young (1755-1825), with his Series of Portraits of the Emperors of Turkey — the London book of 1815 with his engravings derived from Ottoman miniatures (and paintings commissioned in 1808 by Selim III, with vignettes on "my victories" chosen by the Sultan himself) being dedicated to the Prince Regent.

Two portraits by David Wilkie (1785-1841): Left: Sultan Abdul Mejid (1840). Right: Muhemet Ali (1841). Source: Paintings and Drawings by Sir David Wilkie R.A. 1785-1841, np.

Then there are the two portraits by David Wilkie in 1840 of Sultan Abdul Mejid. The finished one was commissioned by none less than Queen Victoria for reasons of high politics: British diplomacy was seeking an Anglo-Ottoman alliance against Egyptian expansion. The Sultan took the occasion to remind the British that he was a modernising head of State (he ascended the throne the year before, in 1839) through the "Western" uniform which he is wearing (though the "Oriental" connection is recalled thanks to the fez and scimitar). A dress reform had been introduced by his father in 1828-29, and he clearly makes the point that he intends to continue on the path of "Westernisation". The unfinished portrait (commissioned and overseen by the Ottoman Sultan) does not fit easily within conventional understandings of British Orientalism, and it seems therefore appropriate that this portrait should not have been included in the Tate Exhibition. In contrast, His Highness Muhammad Ali, Pasha of Egypt (also by Wilkie, 1841) is shown in "Oriental" dress — the only concession to modernity on the part of the governor of Egypt from 1805 to 1849 being the fez. All this can be interpreted as showing the Ottoman Empire renegotiating its place in contemporary international politics, notably the three-cornered transactions between Britain, the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman-Egyptians.

Ottoman Orientalism

The Harem by John Frederick Lewis (1876), oil on mahogany panel, 91.1 x 114cm. Collection: Birmingham Museums. By kind permission of the BBC Your Paintings website.

In her paper on "The Lure of Orientalism: View from the East," Professor Zeynep Çelik (Distinguished Professor of Architecture, New Jersey Institute of Technology) confirmed: Orientalism is not an exclusively Western phenomenon, as Ottoman Orientalism surfaced in the mid-nineteenth century. Paying tribute to Edward Said, she insisted that Orientalism cannot be divorced from politics. Ottoman intellectuals like Halid Ziya in his 1908 novel Nesl-i Ahir (The First Generation) were aware of European "blindness," and odalisk paintings were criticised notably by the novelist Ahmed Mithad in his Avrupa'da Bir Cevelan (A Tour in Europe, 1889) and by Fatma Aliye Hanim in her Nisvan-i Islam (Women of Islam, 1893). One can also contrast the paintings of Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910), characterised by a form of intellectual Islam, with the titillating representations of his master Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Likewise, in "harem" scenes, there is a world of difference between the restraint shown by John Frederick Lewis in Harem Life, Constantinople (1857), and the overt eroticism of Gérôme's paintings. Ethnographic research, for instance into costumes, led to such publications as Costumes Populaires de la Turquie (1873). At the same time, a popular form of Ottoman Orientalism was clearly visible on advertisements and packaging for cigarette paper or cough syrup. Ottoman architecture was naturally prominent at the Ottoman Exhibition held in Istanbul in 1863, but Professor Çelik also showed a photograph of the impressive Turkish Pavilion at the Exposition Universelle of Paris, 1900, and an undated drawing (probably from the late 1880s) in the Prime Minister's Archives in Istanbul of the Benghazi Barracks in Libya — obviously built in the "Western" style. The talk concluded with an image taken from a special issue of Servet-i Fünun (nos. 592-593, 1902) on the Hijaz Railroad, showing a train on a modern bridge being welcomed by local people in traditional dress — except the officer standing for the Ottoman administration. All this made it clear that the Ottomans aligned themselves with the "civilised world."

This first session ended with Questions & Answers. Both speakers agreed that Hamdi Bey presented women as a puzzle, as opposed to the "Western" (especially French) eroticism associated with the harem. The vocabulary is also important: although the terminology is fluctuating, speaking of "the Emperors of Turkey" suggests that the country can be managed, unlike "the Ottoman Emperors," which points to the parallel between the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire as entities difficult to manage.

Orientalism and the Place of the Visual

Left: Photograph of William Holman Hunt in oriental dress, during his first visit to the Middle East. Right: Hunt's self-portrait, which he donated to the Uffizi, Florence, in 1907.

After a pause, Dr Nicholas Tromans (Senior Lecturer in Art History at Kingston University, London, and curator of the Exhibition) treated "Orientalism and the Place of the Visual". He started from Said's critique of Lane's Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians — its supposed absence of narrative and the fact that it was "bogged down in descriptions," as Said puts it — and explained that in the Catalogue he tried to show that this very faltering of narrative suggested by the intervention of the image allowed some painters to believe in the authenticity of their own Oriental projects: for them, the visual legitimately aspired to be that mode of experience which could not be digested by the self-perpetuating processes of Orientalism. These are the projects that form the basis of the exhibition.

Said was sceptical of the visual — and he was not alone. This tradition was invoked by Timothy Mitchell in his 1988 book Colonising Egypt, in which the act of "picturing" (of fixing the gaze) is made to do a great deal of the work of Orientalism, and indeed of colonialism — probably, we may now feel, rather too much of the work. Dr Tromans recalled a quotation in the book from an Egyptian educationalist who had visited Paris in the 1820s, and later explained that "one of the beliefs of the Europeans is that the gaze has no effect." Certainly, European tradition long upheld the innocence of the eye and the associated potential of the picture to offer transparent representation. Equally certainly, a Western tradition that Orientals were unable to grasp these principles forms a central plank of the visual culture of Orientalism. This may explain why an uncomprehending William Holman Hunt "felt tantalised by the restrictions imposed" on his looking, as he described his experience in Palestine in 1854: hence perhaps his Self-Portrait in Oriental Costume (after 1875), which reflects his frustrations.

Later nineteenth-century Orientalist painting has of course long been recognised as a kind of last stand of the Academic tradition: many of its pictorial values are precisely those now looking vulnerable back in London or Paris, and Linda Nochlin did not fail to contrast Gérôme (for instance his Charmeur de serpents / Snake-charmer of c.1883, which Dr Tromans showed as a slide) and Manet. The paper then made a plea in favour of attending more directly to the technologies of visual culture in order to comprehend the power relations around representations. In Interior of a Mosque, Afternoon Prayer (The 'Asr) (before 1857), John Frederick Lewis seems to be conscious of these limitations, cultivating repetitive ambiguities: he is himself the "sitter" (as in some others of his paintings), and this leads us to wonder who is drawing the limits: the artist or the pictures? Turning to Lacanian reflections on perspective and vision, Dr Tromans showed a slide of Pyramids Road (1873), a tree-lined avenue connecting Cairo to Giza, by Edward Lear, the peripatetic artist, harried from location to location, "manipulated" in Lacan's terms by the demands of the perspectival field. The talk concluded on the problem of the authority of beauty as a political end: the twentieth century blamed the Middle East for not living up to the West's beautiful image of it. This raises the question of the West's culpability: we in the West can no longer envisage a beautiful Middle East — we visualise it as ugly. It is rather the West that betrayed beauty, perhaps because we no longer have the political hope to allow us to believe in it.

The Modern and the Anti-Modern: The Lessons from the Orient

George Aitchison's Arab Hall extension to Frederick Leighton's house in Holland Park, London (1877-81). There would also be a "Silk Room" (1894-95) to house Leighton's picture gallery.

The last paper of the morning, on "The Modern and the Anti-Modern: The Lessons from the Orient," was given by Professor John MacKenzie (Professor Emeritus in Imperial History, Lancaster University), who began by saying that, being himself interested in art — or vision &mdashg; he initially found Edward Said's book full of intriguing insights. But this was a brief impression, which soon wore off. When hearing Said talk of Verdi's Aida at a conference in Brighton, he thought that something did not ring true: Said did not analyse the text, the ideology, speaking of a "plot that ends in deadlock and entombment" (162). On the contrary, Professor MacKenzie argued, Aida is about nationalism and anticlericalism; in it, Verdi celebrated the underdog, and the end is an apotheosis. Said is also wrong in that the victims of internationalism were able to maintain their cultural independence, and all through the nineteenth century we find a ubiquitous juxtaposition of the modern and anti-modern. A good example is that of the Great Exhibition of 1851. On the surface, it is the archetype of modernity, with its buildings of iron and glass, but the interior was largely anti-modern. Besides the "wonders of industry" one could find a recurring insistence on handicrafted objects, and the same dichotomy between the industrial and the non-industrial was to be found in all other exhibitions. The South Kensington Museum (which became the Victoria & Albert Museum) was the best showcase of this revival of handicrafts. It must be remembered that each British country-house had to have a display of artefacts from Ethiopia, India, the Sudan — notably weaponry: international loot, in fact. One can also mention Leighton's Arab Hall in Holland Park, all this culminating perhaps with James Millar's cast-iron ornaments for the "Eastern Palace" built for the 1901 Glasgow International Exhibition, or "Baghdad by the Kelvin" as it was dubbed by sceptics. The general trend was towards a relief from industrially-produced goods, and towards a world lost which they wished to regain, indicating a sort of civilisational disease — and in conclusion Professor MacKenzie drew a parallel between the attitudes of the Victorian middle classes and those of the middle classes of the Middle East today, arguing that they have a good deal in common.

Questions and Answers (Morning Session)

The final Questions and Answers session of the morning, which merged with a panel discussion including all the morning speakers, largely revolved around the authoritativeness or otherwise of Edward Said's and Linda Nochlin's writings.

While Professor MacKenzie said that we can pick holes in them, Dr Tromans reminded the audience that it was not the authors who were to blame, but the readers who made too much of their theories: one cannot reproach them for the popularity of their writings, even if it sometimes rests on doubtful foundations. Linda Nochlin tried to deal with aesthetics in relation to politics. There must have been among the Orientalist artists a sense of challenge: they were conscious of the difficulties and hostility facing them, but they believed that art could overcome these barriers, and they recorded their troubles in great detail. Beauty can be an oppressive experience. The works in the Exhibition express a fear before the possible disappearance of real Africa, of the real Middle East, and they betray the Europeans' anxiety.

Professor MacKenzie added that there was a long tradition of absorbing the culture of the Other (e.g. with the Chinese in the 18th century), and that international travellers admired the "natives"' understanding of Nature, while Professor Çelik drew attention to the importance of photography. Very often, these artists started from photographs, which they embellished in their works, choosing rich colours in a bright light. If one considers again Lewis's self-portrait as a beautiful old man in Interior of a Mosque, Afternoon Prayer (The 'Asr), whose beauty is it? Dr Tromans believes that the definition was a shifting one: the beautiful matched with images from other cultures in the nineteenth century.

This led Professor Roberts to wonder what the priorities were in the particular field of research into Orientalist paintings if one was to go beyond the important work already done by Edward Said and Linda Nochlin. Dr Tromans's priority would go to devoting more attention to the technologies of visual culture. Professor Çelik would choose further questioning of the boundaries and Professor MacKenzie would like to see much more cross-disciplinary analysis, including for instance the history of tourism. Dr Tromans pointed out that it should be the scholar's duty all the time — Professor Roberts adding in conclusion that rigorous investigation remained the order of the day.

Note on Wilkie's portraits of Sultan Abdul Mejid

This is a complicated story. There were to have been three versions. Only one (shown at the Exhibition, and now in the Royal Collection) was finished. The second version (ordered by Abdulmecid [Abdul Mejid] himself, and now at Topkapi Palace) was left unfinished at Wilkie's death in 1841. A third one, which had been commissioned by Mehemet [Muhammad] Ali, Pasha of Egypt, when Wilkie went to Alexandria to paint his own portrait, was never started.

Note on the Afternoon Session

The afternoon's theme, "Orientalism and the Politics of Representation," moved away from the Victorian period towards the present, with Edward Said's Orientalism, as well as contemporary politics, figuring largely. Raficq Abdulla, MBE (Visiting Fellow, Faculty of Business and Law, Kingston University) being in the Chair. There were four speakers. Dr Charles Small (Director of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, Yale University), gave a presentation entitled with "From the Gaze of the Colonial and Post-Colonial: Judeo-phobia, Empire, Islamism"; Dr Kamran Rastegar (Lecturer in Arabic and Persian Literatures, University of Edinburgh) followed on with "Curating Diaspora Artists of Muslim-majority Societies in the Metropole: A Third Space, or Neo-Orientalism?"; Professor Ziauddin Sardar (Columnist and author [notably of Why Do People Hate America? 2002], Visiting Professor of Postcolonial Studies, City University, London) who spoke on "Orientalism: Then and Now"; and the last speaker was Professor Bashir Makhoul (Head of the Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton) whose topic was "Occupation of an Equal Space."

Towards the end of the discussion, uneasiness was expressed by a member of the audience at labelling the painters "Orientalists." Was this not a form of political posturing, a way of proclaiming "I'm the only true voice of the Orient"? Another found "the East" in the title of the exhibition problematic — to which Christine Riding replied that the team had spent five years discussing this. Professor Sardar repeated an earlier complaint that he did not like the exhibition, because these representations are clichés. He did not recognise himself in it, he said, and he did not want to be represented like that. Dr Tromans underlined that this is exceptionalism generated though the medium, i.e. British painting, to which Professor Çelik added that this is historical material — what is one to do with it? Letting the other voices in today would not solve the problem: we must have a historical approach. Professor Small disagreed: the Other is necessary — and Professor Sardar somehow concurred: the "East" is the opposite of the "West," and by using the word "lure," we yield to all constructions.

Related Material


Bey, Osman Hamdi, et al. Les costumes populaires de la Turquie en 1873: Ouvrage publié sous le patronage de la Commission impériale ottomane pour l'Exposition universelle de Vienne. Texte par Son Excellence Hamdy Bey ... et Marie de Launay ... Phototypie de Sébah. Constantinople: Imprimerie du "Levant Times & Shipping Gazette," 1873.

Lane, Edward William. An Account of the Manners and Customs of the modern Egyptians. 2 Vols. The Library of Entertaining Knowledge. London: Charles Knight & Co, 1836-1837.

"The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting": an online resource for the exhibition, featuring some of the paintings mentioned here — JB

Paintings and Drawings by Sir David Wilkie R.A. 1785-1841(1900). No other publication details are given. Internet Archive. Web. 1 April 2014. — JB

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978 ("With a New Afterword"). London: Penguin, 1995.

Tromans, Nicholas [Editor]. The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting. With texts by Rana Kabbani, Fatema Mernissi, Christine Riding and Emily M. Weeks. London: Tate, 2008. Paperback, 224 pp. ISBN: 1854377337; 9781854377333 (the exhibition catalogue).

Young, John (engraver in mezzotinto to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent). A Series of Portraits of the Emperors of Turkey, from the Foundation of the Monarchy to the Year 1815. Engraved from Pictures painted at Constantinople. Commenced under the auspices of Sultan Selim the Third, and completed by command of Sultan Mahmoud the Second. With a biographical Account of each of the Emperors. Recueil des portraits des empereurs ottomans. Suite des portraits des empereurs turcs, depuis la fondation de la monarchie jusqu'à l'an 1815. London: W. Bulmer & Co., 1815.

Last modified 1 April 2014