At Uncle Charles the Binder
Attributed to John Frederick Lewis RA (1804 - 1876)
RA Collection: Art
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.
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.
This group includes drawings by J. F. Lewis, his father, brothers and uncles, that relate specifically to their family life and in particular to the artist's childhood and upbringing. These include portrait sketches of family and friends, interiors of their home and work premises as well as landscapes drawn on visits to the homes of relatives or friends.
John Frederick Lewis was born into an artistic family. His father, Frederick Christian Lewis Snr. (1779-1865), was a talented engraver of German descent who was born in London. He attended the Royal Academy Schools and worked as apprentice to the engraver J. C. Stadler before setting up business on his own. Throughout his career he continued to work closely with his brothers, the landscape painter George Robert Lewis (1782-1871) and the bookbinder Charles Lewis (1786-1836).
J. F. Lewis was born at 88, Queen Anne St. East (now 33, Foley Street). This area, north of Oxford Street was a centre of artistic activity at the time and was home to many artists including the Landseer family, Benjamin West, Thomas Stothard, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Thomas Banks and others. Two drawings in the album (RA 07/2952 and 07/2873) show the cellars of 5, Great Newport Street where the Lewis family later lived and which had once been the home of Sir Joshua Reynolds. In 1808 the Lewis family - including George Lewis - moved to Forty Hill, Enfield, possibly due to financial problems. A number of sketchbooks by Frederick Christian Lewis (in a private collection and in the V&A) document their family life in rural Essex. However, the family had moved back into central London by 1812.
The drawings of family members in the Lewis album are often hard to attribute with any certainty as both Frederick Christian Lewis and his older children all appear to have been drawing each other as well as their younger siblings. The children probably emulated their father's style of portrait sketching - using a head and shoulder format drawn in pencil with white highlights - making attribution even more difficult. The inscriptions next to the drawings are sometimes incorrect or imprecise so cannot be fully relied upon. The Lewis children were taught to draw by their father and J. F. Lewis was also taught engraving from an early age. F. C. Lewis originally intended to train his son for a career as an engraver in the family business but allowed him to become a painter once he had proved his capabilities by exhibiting and selling his pictures. At the age of 13 J. F. Lewis made an etching after Adrian van Ostade's 'A Revel of Boors' and he and his brothers were also taught bookbinding by their uncle Charles. In the RA album drawing 07/3132 depicts Charles Lewis's bindery in Duke Street, reputed to be one of the largest fine binderies of its time.
176 mm x 102 mm
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