John Frederick Lewis, R.A. 1804 - 1876
Head of a donkey
Photo: R.A./Prudence Cuming Associates Limited
© Royal Academy of Arts, London
Click here to order image/reproduction rights
Head of a donkey
pencil on grey/green wove paper, 370 X 248 mm
Purchased from A. J. Featherstone, 10th December 1935
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This album contains a large number of drawings of domestic and farm animals by the Victorian painter John Frederick Lewis. Some of the drawings appear to be the artist's childhood sketches, while others relate to paintings carried out at the beginning of his adult career, up to c. 1832.

It was said that the young Lewis frequently played truant from school only to be found by the teacher, 'sitting under a hedge, drawing a cow'. This story is echoed by anecdotes regarding his childhood friend Edwin Landseer, who is also said to have spent all his time sketching at the expense of his studies. The evidence of drawings by both boys at this time reveals a remarkable similarity in both style and subject matter. Both boys also took an active interest in animal dissection, influenced by the precedent set by George Stubbs and also by the teachings of the history painter Benjamin Robert Haydon who instructed Landseer informally and taught his elder brothers from 1815. Lewis's uncle, George, was also devotee of anatomy and published View of the Muscles of the Human Body in 1820, based on his own experience of dissecting. F. C. Lewis Jnr, when asked to authenticate one of his brother's paintings, also recalled: 'it was painted by my glorious brother John and it was commenced an unfurnished room which he rented in a the Paddington Canal, where he was wont to paint from dead animals procured at the Exeter Change'. Although no studies of dissected animals by Lewis have been traced, there are several drawings in this album showing dead animals and game as well as the skulls of a cat and a dog.

Landseer and Lewis's shared interest in drawing animals had a significant impact on their choice of subject matter for their early paintings. Landseer's earliest exhibits, from 1815, at the Royal Academy were of domestic animals - dogs, a mule, a horse, a donkey. Lewis followed suit with similar subjects from 1820 onwards. Lewis also published a series of etchings with his father, Domestic Subjects, published in 1826. This comprised many farmyard and sporting scenes, including 'Horses Ploughing', probably derived from some of the drawings in this album made at Kempston Hardwick in Bedfordshire. Aided by his father's connections, Lewis - like Landseer - found patrons among the land-owning classes, who commissioned him to paint their dogs.

However, Lewis was generally less inclined to tackle the kind of melodramatic or sentimental narrative subjects involving animals that were steadily becoming Landseer's trademark. Despite his early success and his belief in a naturalistic approach to depicting animals, Lewis could not ignore the popularity that Landseer was achieving and although he produced some paintings in a similar vein, he began to travel towards the end of the 1820s and found his forte painting genre scenes of life in foreign countries. He travelled in Spain and Italy before visiting Greece, Turkey and other countries in the eastern Mediterranean, eventually settling in Cairo where he lived for ten years before returning to England.
J. F. Lewis was taught to draw by his father, the engraver, Frederick Christian Lewis (1779-1856). Although copying was the mainstay of his tuition, the young artist was also encouraged to draw from nature. F. C. Lewis and his brother George both took took up this practice in the 1810s, completing a sketching tour of north Wales with John Linnell in 1813.

The Lewis's had relatives in Bedfordshire and family holidays were spent at Mrs Emery's farm at Kempston Hardwick, a small hamlet south of Bedford which offered endless opportunities for drawing landscape, rustic figures and animals. There are numerous drawings of harvesting at Kempston Hardwick by members of the Lewis family, including a sketchbook in the V&A collection attributed to F.C. Lewis Snr but probably by his brother George. According to J.F. Lewis's brother, Charles, his first watercolours (both in this album) depicted haymaking and scything at Emery's farm.

Like his childhood friend Edwin Landseer, the young Lewis was also fascinated by animals and began to draw them with great accuracy. At Kempston Hardwick he produced numerous studies of horses and farmyard animals like cows. Some of the studies in this album are very early indeed and probably date from about 1814. Others are clearly later and appear to be preliminary sketches for early paintings, such as 'Morning - Ploughing' and 'Ploughing Horses' exhibited in 1820 and 1821 respectively. There are also drawings of nearby architectural landmarks such as Elstow Church and Hillesden Manor.
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.