John Frederick Lewis, R.A. 1804 - 1876
Figures kneeling before a monk
Photo: R.A./Prudence Cuming Associates Limited
© Royal Academy of Arts, London
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Figures kneeling before a monk
watercolour over pencil on grey wove paper, 175 X 210 mm
Purchased from A. J. Featherstone, 10th December 1935
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J.F. Lewis set out on a sketching tour of Europe in 1827, no doubt encouraged by his father and uncle who had both undertaken a similar journey in 1818. A quick sketch entitled 'J.F. Lewis by himself on the Rhine' (RA 07/2769) shows the artist at work - seated on a stool smoking a pipe with a paintbox at his feet and a sketchbook on his lap.

By June 1827 Lewis had reached Bruges and from there travelled up the Rhine, stopping to draw the Falls at Neuhausen and to visit the Black Forest. He then spent about six weeks sketching in Switzerland. The RA album contains three fine pencil drawings of the steep sided valley of Lauterbrunner with the Jungfrau mountain in the background (07/3514, 07/3523, 07/3526). He had left Switzerland by October of 1827 and travelling through the Val d'Aosta in Italy and on to Venice where he stayed until his return to England in December.

During this tour, Lewis sketched frequently. His route can be mapped from a sketchbook now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (No. 1054), which also provides the dates of his tour as June 12 - December 19th. His sister, Mary, competently copied several of these drawings into her own sketchbook. In 1828 Lewis exhibited nine works with European settings, at the Old Water Colour Society, the RA and at the British Institution. The year of Lewis's European tour marks a pivotal point in his career, at which he decided to make watercolour his favoured medium and began exhibiting at the Old Water Colour Society. At this time, he also moved away from his early interest in animal painting and began to produce the genre and travel scenes which were proved to be the making of his career. A number of subsequent paintings were clearly based on his 1827 travels, including 'Peasants of the Italian Tyrol at their Devotions' (1829; Private collection) and preliminary sketches for this and other similar works also feature in this album.
This album comprises a collection of 210 sketches by J. F. Lewis and other members of his family, originally held together in a leather binding probably dating from the later nineteenth century. On the cover is the title in gilt: SKETCHES / BY / JOHN FREDERICK LEWIS R.A. / BORN JULY 14TH 1804 – DIED AUGUST 15TH 1876. / BEGINNING WITH HIS BOYHOOD. / COLLECTED BY HIS BROTHER / CHAS. G. LEWIS. This much is known, but the rest of the album’s history remains a mystery. The title tells us that this collection of sketches was assembled by John Frederick’s younger brother, Charles George (1808-1880), who, like their father, Frederick Christian (1779-1856), was an engraver. Charles continued to work in the family studio after his father's retirement in 1855, and as his brother was by then a famous artist, he would have wished to keep sketches relating to his boyhood and early career. However, precisely when and by whom the album was collated is not clear. The detailed inscriptions on the album leaves imply first-hand knowledge of the Lewis family and it seems most likely that the album was bound by or for Charles George and passed down in the family.

The drawings themselves are hugely diverse and are pasted into the album in scrapbook fashion, entirely randomly, in no chronological or thematic order. Few are dated, but the evidence of other similar drawings places them roughly between 1814 and 1830. They cover a wide assortment of subjects: portraits and semi-caricature sketches of Lewis, members of his family and others; sketches relating to his early oil and watercolour paintings; landscape and architectural sketches, particularly at Kempston Hardwick in Bedfordshire and Windsor Great Park; domestic animals, particularly cows, horses and dogs; and wild animals, especially the lions that Lewis saw and drew at the Exeter Exchange Menagerie in London. The drawings are equally varied in style and, despite the inscription on the cover of the album, it has become clear that several are by other members of the Lewis family. Very few are actually signed by the young Lewis, though many are inscribed with a later J. F. Lewis, and with further inscriptions in a formal hand on the album cards.

Artists’ juvenilia are notoriously difficult to judge and here the process of determining authorship is complicated by Lewis’s prodigiously artistic family environment. Not only was his father Frederick Christian Sr one of the most successful engravers of his day as well as a draughtsman, but two of his brothers, Charles George and Frederick Christian Jr, and at least one of his sisters, Mary Exton, were also artists. In addition, there were his two uncles, George Robert, a landscape and portrait painter, and Charles, a bookbinder. His grandfather, Johann Ludwig, variously described as a portrait miniaturist and a bookbinder, was one of many German immigrants who came to Britain in the wake of the Hanoverian monarchy. In such a fertile environment in which father taught son, and brothers and sisters learned by copying one another, distinguishing one hand from another is almost impossible. As the album was made up and bound at least half a century after the drawings were made, it is not surprising that some of the later inscriptions should be incorrect or that misattributions should have occurred.

Related objects:

Similar smaller albums and sketchbooks by J. F. Lewis's father, Frederick Christian Lewis Snr. and other members of the family survive in private collections. There are also further drawings by the Lewis family in the V&A collection.