The design of domestic architecture in the Middle East was one of the most consistent motifs in British Orientalist painting. The modest façades, projecting balconies and above all the delicate mashrabiyyas (lattice-work screens) of private buildings attracted the attention of most of the artists in this exhibition. There was also a fascination with life in these houses, particularly the harem (the female quarters). For those artists who intended to paint any kind of Middle-Eastern domestic subject, therefore, a study of domestic architecture was an essential preliminary.
The paintings and drawings of interiors included here largely represent locations in Cairo, a city much admired by British artists for its traditional architecture. Increasingly in the nineteenth century such architecture was under threat from the influence of European design and town planning, as a result of the reforms and modernisation programmes instigated by Muhammad ‘Ali, Pasha of Egypt. The concern felt by European travellers and Orientalists stemmed in part from the treasured Western myth of the East as a static world, but also from a genuine desire to preserve the region’s heritage.
The harem was the defining symbol of the Orient for Western Europeans, and is today the definitive category of Orientalist imagery for us. What the West thought it knew about ‘the East’ was that, there, women were kept as chattels, imprisoned in segregated spaces, the slaves or sex-toys of their masters. From this image derived one of the key meanings of ‘Oriental’ in European languages: unfettered masculine power. Later treatments of the harem theme by artists across Europe adopted a less violent but still eroticised tone, imagining the harem as a place of refined female sensuality. In this section, the British vision of the harem is explored, a vision which could on occasion lean precariously towards the cruel or the kitsch, but which could also offer fascinating insights into Victorian thinking about the ‘Orient’ and about domestic life at home.
Such changing perceptions of the harem resulted, in part, from the rise of Western female travellers in the nineteenth century who, unlike their male counterparts, were able to access harems. Many published accounts, often representing the harem as a purely domestic place, not dissimilar to its Western equivalent. Another view, associated with the eighteenth-century aristocrat, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, was that of the harem as a liberating, exclusively female space, with its own distinct culture and rituals.