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FREDERICK GOODALL AND HIS COPTIC ENCOUNTER الفنان فريدريك جودال ولوحاته عن الأم والطفل القبطيين

May 5, 2011

FREDERICK GOODALL (1822-1904) was a famous British artist, who had a special interest in the Orient. He was born in London, in 1822, to a family known for its artistic talent; and it wasn’t surprising that he would inherit it, and, on his own right, become the most renowned of them.  The turning point in his career came about when he visited Egypt in the autumn of 1858, during the reign of Sa’id Pasha, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt (1854-1863). This was the period which witnessed the rising influence of the West, not just in Egypt, but throughout the Ottoman Empire, after the Crimean War (1853-1856). Following that war, and as result of the pressure by the Western powers, particularly Britain and France, which culminated in the issuing of the Hamayonuni Edict (Khatt Hamayouni)  in 1856 by Sultan Abdülmecid (1839-1961), the Copts witnessed a change in their legal status in the State, which can be described as the beginning of their emancipation in the modern age.[i] The Coptic Patriarch at the time was Pope Cyril IV (1854-1861), the “Father of Reform”, who initiated a new Coptic renaissance, and realised the opportunities and challenges of the changing circumstances. He would be seen opening his doors to visits from European travellers of all sorts who were visiting Egypt in large numbers then.

Goodall, from the Illustrated London News, in 1863, four years after he had been to Egypt for the first time in 1858-1859

When in Egypt, Goodall rented an old house in the Coptic quarter of Cairo with Carl Haag (1820-1915), a German painter, who became British, and who went to Egypt in the same year. These two would become friends: they worked together, and both showed interest in Coptic and Egyptian themes.

The Coptic quarter which they lived in was the area around the old Coptic cathedral of St. Mark (al-Kanisa al-Morqosiya or al-Batrakhana) in Clot Bey Street, a few minutes’ walk from the present Ramsis Square. This cathedral used to be headquarters of the papal seat of the Coptic Church before it was relocated to its present place in Abbasiya in the late 20th Century. Close to that cathedral lived Pope Cyril IV, and around it scattered the houses and businesses of Copts, mixed with many Muslim families. Many wealthy Copts were known to have lived there at the time.

Goodall described in his book, The Reminiscences of Frederick Goodall[ii], how he came to rent his house in the Coptic quarter (which appears to have been possessed by the Church); how he was helped in that by a German photographer, who was acquainted with the Pope Cyril IV; how he cleaned it – it was empty for a long time before he rented it – and made it ready to inhabit:

The matter would have been prolonged indefinitely had it not been for my newly- found friend; he arranged to have everything carried through without delay. The final negotiations were conducted at twilight in the court-yard, by the light of a lantern, by three priests in their great black turbans. The scene was perfect in its chiaroscuro, and Rembrandt would have loved to paint it. They weighed every sovereign upon their finger-tips, till at last one coin occasioned a lengthy discussion. Finally it was returned to me as light weight, and when I gave them a heavier one, they said I might sign the contract, which I was only too glad to do, with thanks to my friend for the trouble he had taken. My next business was to have the house cleansed, for it literally swarmed with vermin. The Consul told me the first thing was to have the interior lime-washed, partly with white and partly with colour, and to carry out the Coptic directions as far as I could. A strong- decoction of juice of capsicum removed the eggs of the vermin. It was a tedious job. And then came the buying of the cooking utensils, etc., the upholsterer to make cushions for divans, mattresses, and the like. It was not costly, however, for the upholsterer brought a huge mass of cotton-wool, with which he furnished our room luxuriously for a few pounds. It seemed impossible it could have been so quickly managed. My dragoman of course superintended; he engaged my cook — a jet black negress — who quarrelled with him constantly, for he insisted upon calling her “l’esclave.”[iii] She had no English, but understood French. My dragoman always asked for an hour at noon on Fridays for ablution and prayers. I granted it, for if the latter did no good I felt sure the former would, and in that respect I should not have objected if Friday had come round a little oftener; not that he looked dirty, on the contrary he was a very smart fellow, and, I thought, inclined to be honest, but this was not part of his religion. I must say I attributed his civility more to the fear of his not getting a good certificate from me when we parted than to any strong desire to do that which was right.

Though the house had been without a tenant for some time, four sparrows had taken possession of the rafters of my painting-room, and did not appear at all inclined to quit. I was afraid I should have to evict them, although it was amusing to watch them, and their chirruping was cheerful. But they fluttered about the cobwebs and brought down showers of dust, apparently the accumulations of a century. They seemed very little disturbed by my goings on, and watched me with a good deal of interest, perching quite close, pecking their feathers and cleaning themselves to keep pace with the sanitary improvements going on, and endeavouring to make themselves as agreeable companions as possible. I had also two other little comrades — geckoes — which crawled up the windows in the evening to catch the flies, clinging to the glass and darting after the insects like a flash. Instead of two I wished I had scores of them, for then there would have been some probability of the flies decreasing. At that season of the year they were innumerable, and might yet well be called one of the plagues of Egypt — mosquitoes were nothing to them. They had a partiality for the corners of the eyes and nostrils, and the more one drove them away, the more determined they seemed to annoy one.

Then Goodall describes what he calls “Our Street” – by which he means the street which was later called Clot Bey Street; also called Shari’ al-Morqosiya (St. Mark’s Church Street) – and how it was busling with life that fascinated him and his friend Haag:

The street in which we lived was the principal thoroughfare of the Copt quarter, and was in a constant bustle. Camels with their huge packages almost blocked up the narrow way as they passed backwards and forwards from the other parts of the city. Blue women sauntered past from the wells, with their jars balanced in the most graceful fashion on their heads, their beautifully-formed brown arms braceleted with yellow ore, long white metal earrings tinkling down to the shoulders, and strings of beads round the neck, the blue dress — always blue — open nearly to the waist. Their faces were generally plain, but occasionally finely-shaped, the eyes invariably good, often beautiful although black. To tell the truth, I was rather reconciled to black eyes, with, for choice, a background of very fine brown; blue or grey look like blind eyes, with such complexions as the women had in Cairo.

The shops were small dens about five feet square, in which the merchant sat half-buried amidst the goods for sale. There was no way out of the back of his “warehouse,” and it often puzzled me how the man sitting cross-legged, banked up with melons, dates, pomegranates, and other fruits, got in or out without upsetting the whole show. Then there were the blacksmith at work in a hole in the wall not much bigger than a cupboard, the barber shaving heads, the butcher mangling meat into all sorts of anatomical shapes, tobacconists making snuff by pounding the leaf in a mortar, the coppersmith hammering away on a saucepan, the druggist perhaps next door, a man almost naked maybe next door to him working at another trade, and so on. These people were dressed most picturesquely, turbaned with different-coloured shawls, striped dresses, white dresses, silk and rags all mixed up together, brown, black, white, and yellow faces; men from the Desert wrapped up in blankets of all colours, pilgrims from Mecca, and blacks from Nubia. That is what “our street” was like. It was only different from the Turkish quarter in this respect, that there certain trades were carried on in certain streets. The most striking to the ear was the coppersmith’s, for the din he made was something frightful. The most pleasing to the eye was the carpet bazaar, and the next the drug market, the air being perfumed with otto of roses and scented woods.

And he described one of the wedding processions, which he witnessed and made a special effect on him and his friend:

Our street seemed famous for marriages, two or three taking place every day. The Copts always had their processions at night. One had, I recollect, a beautiful effect from our window. A double line of young men carrying lighted candles formed a kind of lane, at the head of which drums and reed instruments were playing. At the other end came the bride completely veiled in scarlet from head to foot, with a profusion of glistening ornaments about her head, led up by two men, in front of whom were two or three little boys burning incense, while a man walking up and down the lane of candles sprinkled scented water. The blaze from the hundred candles, besides two masses of fire carried in frameworks of iron, commonly called devils, combined with the smoke, gave a most picturesque appearance to the whole scene. A crowd of women followed in the rear screaming out a kind of song with wild quivering voices, something between a whistle and a locomotive and a bird, intended to express joy.

Both Goodall and Haag used to enjoy a ride in the morning on the Shubra Road, which was very refreshing:

Haag and I always rode before breakfast for about an hour, the air then being so pure and refreshing. We generally took the Shubra Road, lined on both sides with beautiful acacias and sycamores of gigantic size, which formed a perfect avenue for two miles, always pleasant, even at midday. Moreover, it was kept well watered, as it led to the Pasha’s palace. Being the Rotten Row of Cairo, in the afternoon it was gay with carriages and horsemen, going to or returning from Shubra Gardens. The ladies, of course, were closely veiled. The eunuchs rode superb Arabs, covered all over with rich trappings and tassels, and were very imposing in their appearance. And they knew it too, sitting their horses with such a consequential air, and making them prance to show off their horsemanship.[iv]

In 1859, at the end of his seven month stay in Egypt, Goodall packed  130 oil sketches along with many watercolour sketches and countless pencil drawings, and shipped them back to London. Carl Haag left Egypt for Jerusalem and other places in the region to continue his painting.  When in London, Goodall began work on large canvases inspired by these sketches.  Goodall would paint many large oil paintings over the next decade.[v]

Goodall returned to Egypt, for the second time, in 1870 with two of his sons, and his brother Edward Goodall, another artist in the family, and stayed in the house of Mariette-Bey, the famous Egyptologist, near Sakkara, where he continued his artistic work.  He returned to London the following year. With time Goodall gained wide recognition, and his work now is admired by millions throughout the world. The Royal Academy, in London, displays over 170 canvases which had Egypt as their setting. Only a few are from non-Egyptian background.

Goodall has painted at least two beautiful pictures on the theme of Coptic mother and child. In Chapter XX of his book Reminiscences, “List of My Pictures and Drawings”, Goodall lists “The Copt mother and her first-born”, and says he painted it in 1861. [vi] This was painted obviously from previous sketches from his first period in Egypt. This painting may have disappeared, and I don’t know of any existing painting of his which was made in that year. We know that many of his pictures were lost at some stage in fire, so this picture might have been destroyed in this fire. [vii]

One of the two paintings with Coptic theme that are in existence is displayed at the V&A (Victoria & Albert) Museum, in London, and is called “Copt Mother and Child”. It is watercolour on paper (53.9 x 36 cm); and is signed and dated ‘G F 1875’.

Copt Mother and Child, by Frederick Goodall, 1875

One can see the painting at:

And also at:

The V&A website describes the picture:

Lewis’s minute, jewel-like technique detailed the richness of this unfamiliar culture, and captured particularly the intensity of light, filtered through panelling and lattice work. It was an effect echoed in the beautiful ‘Copt Mother and Child’ by Frederick Goodall. From 1858 to 1859 Goodall spent eight months in Egypt, and returned in 1870. His image of a Christian Egyptian woman and her child is more a portrait than a genre painting with its close-up viewpoint. But the interest for Goodall’s British audience lay in the glimpse it offered into another’s way of life.

The second picture of a mother and child which we know Goodall have painted, and is in existence, is oil on paper, rather than watercolour, and was laid on canvas (64.8 x 47 cm). This painting was sold in 2008 by Christie’s, in London, realising a price of £1,125. The buyer is unknown. Christie’s says it is signed, inscribed and dated ‘Cairo/janry 6th./1859’[viii] and indistinctly inscribed ‘Copt Woman and Child’. [ix]

This painting is displayed in the company’s website at:

Copt Woman and Child, by Frederick Goodall, 1859

This beautiful painting is therefore an original one, painted in 1859 when Goodall was in Egypt for the first time in 1858-1859. This painting, in my view, is one of the most beautiful and fascinating pictures that have ever been made by an artist on Coptic themes. One can read into it quite a lot: this is a beautiful and proud Coptic woman who is strong in body and soul, her strength seems to be born of duty. With motherly love, devotion and confidence, she carries her child on her left shoulder supported with her left arm, while her right arm is hanging down her side with its hand clenched. One would like to see in this Coptic woman a brave, devoted, determined, forward-looking mother, who rears her son to be daring and confident. This woman represents to me what I would like to see our Coptic nationalism doing – shouldering her children, protecting them, and imparting a healthy pride in them. But that is mixing art with imagination and politics – the painting is magnificent on its own right.

How to cite this article: Dioscorus Boles (5 May 2011), FREDERICK GOODALL AND HIS COPTIC ENCOUNTER,


[i] Many Copts will be surprised that the Hamayouni Edict, 1856, was in any way connected to the modern emancipation of the Copts. The Edict is often cited as one of the causes of trouble for the Copts’ problem at the present, particularly in relation to construction and repair of churches in Egypt. It is true that the Decree is being used to restrict the freedom of the Copts but when it was originally issued it was meant to emancipate all non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire. But we shall come back to this matter.

[ii] The Reminiscences of Frederick Goodall, R. A. With two portraits (1902). The excerpts I have taken are from pp. 69-75. You can read the whole book here:

[iii] Slave.

[iv] On the Shubra road read Chapter II of A Thousand Miles up the Nile by Amelia B. Edwards: She calls the Shubra road, the Champs Elysées of Cairo. She visited Egypt in the winter of 1873/4.

[v]  Most of Goodall’s work comes from Egypt.

[vi] Page 382.

[vii] For more on the Goodall family, see:

[viii] Lower left.

[ix] On the reverse.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. dr.guergues youssef permalink
    October 14, 2011 10:06 pm

    اكثر من رائعة ، لاول مرة فىحياتى اصادف هذا الكنز العظيم لفنان غربى تسجل فرشاته وريشته لوحات لامهاتنا القبطيات فى ملابسهن المحتشمة شكرا للناشر العزيز

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink
      October 15, 2011 4:39 am

      Thanks. Good to see that you liked it. Now see the other articles, particularly the one about Mu’allem Jirjis al-Jawhari.


  2. Catherine Allison permalink
    April 16, 2012 10:02 am

    I did enjoy reading your article on Goodall. About 10 years ago I tried to trace the studio where he and my ancestor Carl Haag stayed in 1859,but sadly we had to give up our search. I wonder if you had more luck than i did!
    Best wishes,
    catherine Allison.

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink
      May 21, 2012 10:02 pm

      Thank you, Catherine, and apologies for the late reply. I have been away for a while. It is difficult to know for sure but it is probably somewhere in the buildings opposite the Old Morqosia Church in Clot Bey Street, across the road. The Copts have a habit of destroying their buildings, and re-constructing new ones, with little attention to history or heritage. It is really sad.



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