The ancient ruins at Edfu are situated between Luxor and Aswan, in Egypt. It was unusual for Lewis to focus on the topography of Egypt, although the architecture remains subservient to the Bedouin encampment in the foreground. The picture was painted from drawings which Lewis had made while living in Cairo during the 1840s.
The Middle East and North Africa attracted a large number of Victorian artists, in search of exotic subjects. In 1844 the novelist W.M.Thackeray (1811-63) wrote, 'There is a fortune to be made for painters in Cairo, and materials for a whole Academy of them' (quoted in Lambourne, p.102). Lewis moved to Cairo in 1841 and lived there for nine years. He wore Islamic dress and lived in extreme luxury in the Arab quarter. During this period he travelled all over the country and, of all the English artists who painted in the Middle East, he was the most in tune with Egyptian life. At first he painted only in watercolour, and recorded the sun-bleached landscape to great effect. The writer and critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) particularly admired his skill in painting camels:
If the reader will examine…with a good lens, the eyes of the camels…he will find there is as much painting beneath their drooping fringes as would, with most painters, be thought enough for the whole head. (Quoted in Lambourne, pp.103-5.)However, Ruskin was concerned that Lewis's colours would fade with the passage of time and urged him to change medium. From 1856 onward, therefore, Lewis resumed painting in oils, although his technique and handling remained those of a watercolourist.
In this picture, painted once he was back in England, Lewis typically focuses on contemporary figures and their animals, rather than on the ancient ruins at Edfu. An Arab chief reclines on the ground, while his two camels, laden with pack-saddles, are resting. Just visible behind the animals is a white canvas tent, pitched between the walls of Edfu and its temple. The scene is set against a vast panorama: the distant plain dotted with palm trees, and beyond it the river Nile, bordered by a chain of hills on the horizon. The temple of Edfu is clearly visible on the left with its well-preserved inscriptions, but a preparatory drawing reveals that Lewis moved the minaret to the right in order to accommodate the bedouin tent. His aim was evidently to include elements of the ancient (the temple), the medieval (the mosque) and the modern (the tent).
Lionel Lambourne, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.102-5.
Mary Anne Stevens (ed.), The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse - European Painters in North Africa and the Near East, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 1984, pp.204, no.91, reproduced p.204.