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September 21, 2011

John Frederick Lewis (1804 – 1876), late 1860s

 John Frederick Lewis (1804 – 1876)[1] is one of the most famous Oriental and Mediterranean English painters. In 1841, when he was 37 years old, he went to Egypt where he remained for uninterrupted ten years, until 1951 – that is more than many other European artists, such as Frederick Goodall[2] and Leon Bonnat[3], who visited Egypt in the 19th Century. He also spent a few years in Spain and Italy. When in Egypt, and unlike Goodall who lived in the Coptic quarter, Lewis settled in the Arab quarter of Cairo. Egypt was then ruled by the pragmatic and relatively tolerant Muhammad Ali (1805 – 1848) – during his reign, European travellers poured into Egypt, particularly since the 1840s.  There, in the Arab quarter of Cairo, the English writer William Makepeace Thackeray,[4] who visited Egypt in 1844, met Lewis and wrote about their encounter with him in his Eastern Sketches: A Journey from Cornhill to Cairo.[5] Thackeray describes how Lewis went native, dressed like a Turk and enjoyed living like an Oriental.

A photograph of John Frederick Lewis (undated) in London, in his Oriental costume

Lewis found Cairo, as many artists did before and after him, fascinating and magnificently picturesque. Some of his most beautiful paintings, many of them in watercolour, were made in Egypt. When he returned to London in 1851, he took with him so much work which inspired him to paint more Oriental themes for the rest of his life in England. Much of Lewis’ work is about Muslim Egypt, including its harem life, mosques, schools and bazars. About Coptic Egypt, only one work painted by Lewis is known – and that is in two versions, watercolour and oil.

Lewis’ famous Coptic painting is oil on wood (36.8 x 35.6 cm in dimension) and is titled “The Hosh[6] Courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch, Cairo”. It is ung at the Tate Gallery[7] in London, which purchased it in 1900. it is signed by Lewis and dated 1864. As we know Lewis had left Egypt in 1851, this painting was clearly made in England, most probably from an earlier work which he had executed while still in Egypt and which he carried with him to England.

The Coptic patriarchate when Lewis was in Egypt was located in the Coptic quarter in the Azbakiya district of Cairo, a few hundred yards away from the present Midan (Square of) Ramses.[8] There the patriarchs, since Mark VIII (1796 – 1809), resided, including Peter VII or Boutros/Butrus El-Gawli (1809 – 1852)[9] who was the Coptic Patriarch (Pope) of the Coptic Orthodox Church when Lewis lived in Egypt for long ten years. Patriarch Peter VII, and his courtyard, as we shall see, is the key subject of Lewis’ painting.

 The Hosh Courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch, Cairo, by John Frederick Lewis; 1864

 You can see this painting at the Tate Gallery website here:

 For a brighter photo of the artistic work, go to:,_John_Frederick_-_The_Hosh_of_the_house_of_the_Coptic_Patriarch,_Cairo_-_1864.jpg

The display caption of the work at the Tate Gallery reads:

The Coptic Church is the ancient Orthodox Christian Church of Egypt. This study of the patriarch’s house was executed after Lewis’s return from Egypt in 1851, using the sketches he brought back. This work highlights Lewis’s ability to paint figures and setting with careful attention to light and shade, produced here by the top-lit courtyard. Lewis caused a sensation when he exhibited one of his Near Eastern scenes in London in 1850. John Ruskin admired his attention to detail, claiming that in truth-to-nature he ranked alongside the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Lewis’ beautiful 1864, oil on wood work, The Hosh Courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch, is a very busy painting. The old patriarch, Peter VII, is depicted sitting on a bench (the trellised wooden divan of Gustave Flaubert)[10] and dictating a letter to his clerk who is squatting on the ground, while two Arabs, one standing and another sitting down, are waiting ready to dispatch the letter to its destination. Besides them are a she-camel and a lactating git. The letter may be written to the abbot of the Monastery of Saint Anthony (Antuniyus) in the Eastern Desert close to the Red Sea, some 200 away from Cairo, and hence the need for the Arabs to deliver it on their camels, since that was the only way of transport then . Patriarch Peter VII was a monk at that Monastery in his past, and throughout his career he kept a strong relationship with it, its superior and monks.[11] Sitting on the bench, on the left hand side of the Patriarch, a Coptic dignitary, most probably one of the community’s archons;[12] while a black-robed and capped man, with a wide fabric belt, who is most probably a priest and aid of the Patriarch, is standing by. Another man, wearing a greenish outer garment and a white turban is standing somewhat at a distance holding a staff in his left hand – he is looking at the Patriarch as he is dictating his letter.

There are other personages in the scene: one, hooded in black, sitting mostly hidden by a piece of furniture, seems to be an old monk; another man in short blue shirt and a white turban, is leaning on the wall; and there are also four women dressed in colourful attires. One of the women is looking out from a window of the latticework meshrebeeyeh (more accurately ‘roshan’)[13] on the second storey of the building. Three women are in the courtyard, one is black, possibly Nubian. Two of the women, who are on the right side of the painting, one sitting while the other standing, are busy feeding lively animals with seeds and water melon. The animals which crowd the courtyard, include ducks, geese, pigeons, goats and, if one looks carefully in the lower part of the right hand side, a cat sitting in a pear position – some of the animals are flying and fluttering, some are bathing in the ornamental fountain pool in the middle of the courtyard; some just relaxing besides the two girls or at the periphery. The whole seen conveys a hosh that is full of life, activity and colour.

The courtyard is square and seems to be surrounded by multiple-story building and column(s). It has a large green tree in its middle that dominates it. Through the tree trickles the light from the sun above creating a beautiful light and shade effect on the ground.

One immediately remembers the description which the French novelist Gustave Flaubert gave to the courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch when he visited Peter VII on 28 December 1849, and is struck by the similarity between his description and Lewis’ painting – one, however, is also aware of some differences. Flaubert says that, on his visit to the Coptic Patriarch, he “entered a square courtyard surrounded by columns, with a little garden in the middle – that is, a few big trees and a bed of dark greenery, around which ran a trellised wooden divan.”[14] There he met the old man and conversed with him on theological matters.[15] One recognises the square courtyard surrounded by column(s) with big tree(s), but, unlike Lewis’ painting, there is no fountain pool in the middle but rather a ‘bed of dark greenery’.

Whose description is more accurate: Flaubert’s written account or Lewis’ artistic rendering? Did the courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch have a bed of dark greenery or an ornamental fountain pool? Lewis’ painting is dated 1864 but as we have already seen, he made it from earlier work(s). We do not have any authenticated written information as to the date Lewis made his original sketches or possibly painting; however, another version of The Hosh Courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch exists and can offer some help. This is a watercolour painting, 97.5 cm x 126.0 cm in dimension,[16] and is kept at the City of Birmingham Art Gallery,[17] but is surprisingly titled “Courtyard of the Painter’s House, Cairo”!

  Courtyard of the Painter’s House, Cairo, by John Frederick Lewis, dated 1850-1851


You can find this painting at the official website of the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery here:

We are told that that painting was made in 1850-1851, though no mentioning of Lewis either signing or dating it; so one would assume that it was made by Lewis just before his departure from Egypt on his way back to London after the end of his ten years sojourn in it. The Birmingham Art Gallery writes about this painting: “This watercolour, depicting the house where Lewis was living, combines highly worked, brilliantly-detailed passages with unfinished areas, notably the extreme left of the watercolour and the figures on the right-hand side.”[18]

All the personages in the watercolour are found in the oil painting, including the seating figure on the divan who is supposed to be the Coptic Patriarch, his clerk and the two Arabs, with their she-camel and her git. However, the other men and the four women, including the one looking out from the roshan, and who appear in the oil painting, are all missing. Only the Arabs’ camel and git are present; while the ducks, geese, pigeons, goats and cat are missing – in place, we find a gazelle laying on its side at the front of the painting. The building with its doors, windows, roshan, column; and the courtyard with the leafy tree allowing the sun light to trickle through it and creating the beautiful light and shade reflection on the ground are, however, all the same. Unfortunately, the watercolour version seems to be truncated from below; and, therefore, we don’t know whether the courtyard has a fountain pool or not.

The question arises: did the courtyard that appears in both paintings belong to Lewis or the Coptic Patriarch? I am inclined to say it was the courtyard of the Patriarch. It will be interesting to study the source of the confusion that led to the mislabelling of the watercolour painting at the Birmingham Art Gallery. The Gallery may want to correct the labelling; confirm the Coptic patriarchal identity of the hosh; and make up the link with the 1864 oil on wood version at the London Tate Gallery. If this watercolour painting was executed in Cairo in 1850/1851 then it most probably was the origin on which Lewis based his more crowded oil painting which he made in 1864. The fountain pool that appears in the oil painting, but was not seen by Flaubert in his visit to Peter VIII in 1849, might have been constructed shortly his visit. Private houses in Egypt in the 19th Century seem to have commonly a fountain their courts (see the Appendix I below).

So, it seems that Lewis used other earlier works to add more persons, objects and animals to his original 1850/1851 watercolour painting. The four women, some men and many of the animals, and possibly the fountain pool, that appear in the 1864 oil on wood version may all be accurate additions to the original Coptic patriarchal scene. Alternatively, Lewis may have borrowed other scenes; added them to the original scene; and composed a new one that unites historical accuracy with creative construction. Whatever the case, his attention to detail and masterly depiction of life is difficult to fault.



Appendix I: Egyptian houses in the 19th Century

Edward William Lane, who visited Egypt in the 1820s, describes Egyptian houses in his An account of the manners and customs of the modern Egyptians:

“The houses in general are two or three storeys high; and almost every house that is sufficiently large encloses an open, unpaved court, called a “hosh,” which is entered by a passage that is constructed with one or two turnings, for the purpose of preventing passengers in the street from seeing into it. In this passage, just within the door, there is a long stone seat, called “mastab’ah,” built against the back or side wall, for the porter and other servants. In the court is a well of slightly brackish water, which filters through the soil from the Nile; and on its most shaded side are, commonly, two water-jars, which are daily replenished with water of the Nile, brought from the river in skins. The principal apartments look into the court; and their exterior walls (those which are of brick) are plastered and whitewashed. There are several doors, which are entered from the court. One of these is called “bab el-hareem” (the door of the hareem): it is the entrance of the stairs which lead to the apartments appropriated exclusively to the women and their master and his children.”[19]

He includes two drawings to show court of a private house in Cairo and a fountain. This is not very different from the court of the Coptic Patriarch which is shown in the paintings of John Frederick Lewis. It is possible that some of the apartments in the building that surrounded the court of the Patriarch were occupied by lay or married clergy, while the Patriarch himself would live in a separate apartment.

 Sketch of a court of a private house in Cairo by Edward William Lane[20]

Sketch of ornamental fountain in the court of a Cairo house by Edward William Lane[21]

One can see the same traditional central court in other paintings of Lewis, such as in his painting, titled “The Midday Meal”:

 The Midday Meal by John Frederick Lewis, 1875. This is oil on canvas (114.3 x 88.3 cm) painting. It shows somewhat similar court to that shown in the Coptic Patriarch’s courtyard. This perhaps was the reason why Doris Behrens-Abouseif mistakenly called it “House at Azbakiyya belonging to the Coptic Patriarch”[22]


Appendix II: Reproductions of the Hosh that show the beauty of the original


In this Appendix I add a reproduction by Spanish artists, which show the beauty of Lewis’ original painting in more colour and contrast. You can visit the site here:

[1] For a biography, read: Bendiner, Kenneth. “Lewis, John Frederick (1804-1876).” The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed 6 February 2008. Also see:

[2] For Goodall’s stay in Egypt and encounter with the Copts, read:

[3] For Bonnat’s stay in Egypt and encounter with the Copts, read:

[4] About Thackeray, read:

[5] Find Thackeray’s book in the Internet Archive here:  Thackeray published his book in 1846 under the name of Mr. M.A. Titmarsh.

[6] Hosh is Arabic for court or courtyard.

[7] Millbank, London SW1P 4RG

[8] For Azbakiya and its history, read: Azbakiyya and its Environs from Azbek to Ismail 1476-1879 by Doris Behrens-Abouseif (French Institute of Ancient Archaeology; Cairo; 1985).

[9] About the Coptic Patriarch, Peter VIII (Boutos/Butrus El-Gawli), read:


[11] During these days, the Monastery of Saint Anthony was more important than the monasteries in the western Desert. Since the election of Mark VI (1650 – 1660), who was from the Monastery of Saint Anthony, all patriarchs came in an uninterrupted line from the same monastery and until Cyril IV (1854 – 1861) who succeeded Peter VII. See The Coptic Encyclopedia; Volume 6; Patriarchs, Dates and Succession of; pp. 1913-1919.

[12] An ‘archon’ in the Coptic community means a leading lay figure, usually a rich official in the administration, who by his position wields some influence that he uses to protect the Church and the community.

[13] About meshrebeeyeh (roshan), read: Edward William Lane: An account of the manners and customs of the modern Egyptians, written in Egypt during the years 1833-1835. London. 1842. Pages 5-6. You can access the book here:  Also, see:

[14] Gustave Flaubert’s travel notes & letters translated from the French and edited by Francis Steegmuller (The Bodley Head Ltd; London; 1972); pp. 71-5.

[15] Ibid.

[16] It is, therefore, larger than the oil painting kept at the Tate Gallery in London.

[17] The official website says the Birmingham Art Gallery purchased it in 1948 without giving details of previous owners.


[19] See Edward William Lane; pp. 8-9.

[20] Ibid; opposite page 8.

[21] Ibid; p.9.

[22] Doris Behrens-Abouseif; Pl. XIX.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2011 9:32 pm

    Interesting paintings the only most eye catching difference in the oil painting is that the space above the windows where Patriarch is sitting is suddenly double in seize compared to the oil painting.
    Have a great day.

  2. September 21, 2011 9:33 pm

    Sorry compared to the watercolor painting



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