Nero at Exeter 'Change
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.
Growing up in London, J.F. Lewis was able to accompany his friend Edwin Landseer to the Exeter 'Change (or Exchange) which housed Polito's Menagerie on the site of the present Strand Palace Hotel. This menagerie, or zoo, was initially founded in the 17th century as 'Pidcock's Exhibition of Wild Beasts' until it was bought by the Italian circus owner Stefano Polito in 1817. The business changed hands again after Polito's death when it was bought by his former employee Edward Cross. The menagerie was promoted by Cross as the 'grandest National Depot of Animated Nature in the World...the greatest assemblage of curiosities ever collected together since the days of that primeval collector of natural curiosities, Old Noah'. There, visitors could see curiosities such as porcupines, ostriches and boa constrictors alongside lions, tigers, elephants and rhinos. Polito's was a highly popular attraction in early 19th century London, frequented by poets, writers and other public figures.
Lewis and Landseer developed a particular fascination with lions, comparable to that of George Stubbs who made numerous studies of lions and lionesses between 1770 and 1775. The RA album contains numerous drawings of lions and lionesses along with further drawings of tigers, a puma, Zebu cattle, an elephant and a polar bear most of which are labelled as being drawn "at Exeter Change". Both boys also became interested in animal dissection, probably influenced by the precedent set by Stubbs and also by the history painter Benjamin Robert Haydon who instructed Landseer and his brothers. Edward Cross, is said to have taken a particular interest in Landseer and in 1820 presented him with the body of a lion that had recently died. Lewis was involved in a similar operation with Landseer at which time the two artists were said to have kept the lion's body 'so long for purposes of drawing and dissection that at last their neighbours, whose artistic sense was less developed perhaps than their olefactory one, were forced to complain'. F. C. Lewis Jnr, also recalled that his brother rented rooms '...off the Paddington Canal, where he was wont to paint from dead animals procured at the Exeter Change'.
Although no anatomical studies of lions by Lewis have been traced, there are numerous drawings of lions, lionesses and other big cats in the RA album as well as sketches of dead game. Both artists exhibited several early paintings of lions including Lewis's 'Study of a Lion' (1821) and 'Lion and Lioness: a study from nature (1824). A critic described the latter as 'one of the finest representations of that noble animals we have ever seen...The drawing is not only accurate in the extreme but there is also that character and expression in the countenances that a faithful adherence to nature always produces' (The Sporting Magazine, May 1824). Lewis's engraving 'Head of a lion', is remarkably similar to 'Old Lion Nero' drawn by Edwin Landseer for his brother Thomas's 'Twenty Engravings of Lions, Tigers, Panthers & Leopards etc' (published 1823). When Lewis exhibited a painting of a different animal subject at the Royal Academy in 1823, 'Fatal Curiosity' - showing a monkey breaking a mirror - Thomas Stothard mistook it for Landseer's work. However, in general, Landseer's paintings of lions and other animals were considerably more ambitious in tone in comparison with Lewis's naturalistic and subtle approach. As the art critic John Ruskin summed up in his book Pre-Raphaelitism (1851): 'Rubens, Rembrandt, Snyders, Tintoret and Titian, have all in various ways, drawn wild beasts magnificently; but they have in some sort humanised or demonised them...The sullen isolation of the brutal nature; the dignity and quietness of the mighty limbs; the shaggy mountainous power, mingled with grace...; the stealthy restraint of strengh and wrath in every soundless motion of the gigantic frame; all this seems never to have been seen, much less drawn, until Lewis drew and himself engraved a series of animal subjects'.
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