London Art Week 2019 - rediscovery of ‘lost’ masterpiece by John Frederick Lewis

Our summer exhibition includes a major rediscovery featured in ‘Country Life (5 June 2019). This magnificent, large watercolour by John Frederick ‘Spanish’ Lewis (1804-1876), famous in its day, is in exceptional condition, and has not been seen in public since 1891.

The Lewis depicts a dramatic moment during the Carlist wars in Spain in the 1830s when the artist was travelling in Spain. A wife pleads for the life of her husband, a captured spy of the Christino army, at the feet of the famous Carlist General leader Tomás Zumalacárregui. Lewis portrays the legendary soldier in his characteristic dress of red hat, sheepskin jacket (zamarra) and trousers which he wore rather than a uniform. Lewis worked from sketches given to him by Captain Henningsen, aide-de-camp to the General who is standing behind him in the watercolour.

The subject was exhibited at the Society of Painters in Water Colour in 1837. It was engraved by F.C. and C.G. Lewis, John Frederick's father and brother, published by Graves in 1840 and 1841 under the title ‘The Spanish Wife's Last Appeal’ and the image was well known in the mid-nineteenth century.

The work was subsequently exhibited at the Winter Exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1891, lent by Arthur Blake, and since then hung in a dark room in a private collection in Dorset, the property of the Blake family. Its rediscovery is especially important as it is one of the major works of Lewis’ Spanish period. The work also featured in an article by Nicholas Tromans in The Burlington Magazine vol. cxxxix, no.1136, November 1997, pp.760-762, illus. fig 48 [the print] about Lewis’ Carlist war subjects, in which it was described as ‘whereabouts unknown’.

The first Carlist war was fought from 1833 to 1840, between the supporters of the regent, Maria Christina, (hence the term Christinos) acting for the infant Queen Isabella II of Spain, and those of the late king's Ferdinand VII’s brother, Carlos de Borbón (hence Carlists). The Carlists supported an autocratic monarchy espousing ‘God, Country and King’ and invoked Salic Law, whereas Isabella had Liberal supporters. After the proclamation of Don Carlos's bid for the throne, the progress of the conflict was eagerly followed in Britain, and, as with the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, divided opinion, and attracted participants on both sides from other countries. The fighting in the first war was mainly carried out in the Basque Country, Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia. It continued over the course of the nineteenth century with two further wars and into the twentieth with the Spanish Civil War.

Like many of Lewis's paintings, it was favourably reviewed in the contemporary press. However, there is also the ambiguity found in many of his other works. Depending on your point of view, you could see it as an illustration of the ruthless cruelty of the Carlist General Zumalacárregui and the tragedy of the unfortunate spy and his family, or you could, like Henningsen, admire the stern nature and skill of the General, and the legitimacy of his cause. In 1838, Lewis exhibited another scene from the Carlist Wars, entitled The Pillage of a Convent, in Spain, by Guerilla Soldiers.

Lewis also made four studies for at least one other Carlist war picture, never realized, allegedly titled The Proclamation of Don Carlos, and one of these, in the collection of the Morgan Library and Museum, New York (1977.31), shows Zumalacárregui in the same pose but commanding at a battle or siege. He is widely credited for the invention of the Spanish omelette.

To be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the work of J.F. Lewis by Briony Llewellyn and Charles Newton.