Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection

JOHN FREDERICK LEWIS
1805-1876

95 An Interior ? c.1834

Watercolour, gouache, gum arabic with some scraping out on wove paper 30.2 x 37.5 (11 7/8 x 14 3/4) mounted on thin card 30.9 x 38.1 (12 1/8 x 15)

T08173

The artificiality of this scene is obvious. With her pretty features and in the carefully posed act of stitching lace onto a piece of linen, the woman conforms to a type seen in the sweet, fancy portraits illustrated in the fashionable drawing-room annuals of the 1830s which had names like The Keepsake or Forget-me-Not. She and all the studio props around her have been brought together by the artist so he can show his virtuosity in rendering different textures and effects of brilliant colour. Lewis's artistic and technical aims in An Interior could not be more different from those seen in the utterly spontaneous The Escorial (no.94), and here, as well as in one important detail discussed below, the work tells us a lot about how watercolour art in Britain had developed by the early 1830s and how British artists saw their own and some of their colleagues' achievements.

Lewis became a full member of the Society of Painters in Watercolours in June 1829. The competitiveness of the annual exhibitions of this Society, in rivalry with the Royal Academy, stimulated watercolour artists to raise their art to new heights by matching the substance of oil painting and, in the brilliance of their palette, equal the effects of oil pigments. Lewis, who had started as an oil painter, soon became one of the most successful watercolourists. In An Interior the use of gouache or bodycolour and gum arabic gives the pigments weight and, as can be seen in the way lines have been scratched with the end of a brush handle in the shield on the cupboard, the capacity to be worked while wet. Highlights have been realised by scraping the dried pigment away with a sharp penknife until the surface of the white paper beneath has been lifted. Particularly interesting, however, is Lewis's inclusion, in the left foreground, of a picture by R.P. Bonington (see no.93), an artist he seems not to have known but clearly admired for he copied one of his pictures in 1835 (Lewis 1978, p.38). The painting appears to be a lost oil, a watercolour version of which is in Glasgow (fig.26; Noon 1991, no.124). Bonington's reputation after his death in 1828 and throughout the 1830s was enormous and here we see Lewis paying tribute to the genius who died young. The composition recalls some of Bonington's own interior scenes, and the fact that the woman is stitching lace might even be read as a reference to Bonington's father's trade as a lace manufacturer. Not only has Lewis shown an oil in his watercolour, and thus implied that work in the two mediums deserved equal recognition; but he has also placed the Bonington next to a seventeenth-century Dutch old master in a way that juxtaposes high-life and low-life subjects as well as proclaiming that Bonington's and, indeed, his own scenes from familiar life are worthy of being judged alongside the old masters.

This picture has been called In the Studio, but a more correct title would seem to be An Interior since Lewis exhibited two works with this title at the SPW in 1833 and 1834: the former showed 'massive and lumbering furniture of the old world' (Literary Gazette, 4 May 1833, p.283), a description which perhaps matches another similar watercolour by Lewis in the Victoria and Albert Museum (no.620-1870) rather than T08173.

Robin Hamlyn

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.224 no.95, reproduced in colour p.225