Introduction

John Frederick Lewis, ‘Study for ‘The Courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch’s House in Cairo’’ c.1864
John Frederick Lewis
Study for ‘The Courtyard of the Coptic Patriarch’s House in Cairo’ c.1864
Tate

This exhibition is about the paintings made by British artists of the ‘Orient’. In this context ‘Orient’ meant those parts of the eastern Mediterranean world which could be accessed relatively easily, particularly after the development of steamboat and rail travel in the 1830s: Egypt, Palestine and Turkey. In these places, predominantly Muslim and at least nominally under the control of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, British artists sought to develop imagery which captured what they believed to be characteristic of the people, cities and landscapes of the region.

In the 1970s the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said published his treatise on Orientalism, initiating a global debate over Western representations of the Middle East. For many, such representations now appeared to be a sequence of fictions serving the West’s desire for superiority and control over the East. The argument for and against Said’s Orientalism has continued for thirty years. Its resonance for an exhibition such as this one, however, is as strong as ever given that, by the 1920s (the end of the period covered by the exhibition), Britain was in direct control of much of the newly abolished Ottoman Empire, including Egypt, Palestine and Iraq. As Said’s followers argued, these images cannot be viewed in isolation from their wider political and cultural context.

Keeping the debates around Orientalism in mind, The Lure of the East focuses on the range of pictorial options open to British artists, within five major themes: portraits, genre, religious and domestic subjects and landscape. British artists came to the Middle East from a culture steeped in technical and compositional traditions. Despite the apparent difference of the people and places they encountered, they found the Orient inspiring and challenging.