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1884 Painting Egypt in the Age of Empire

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The Cairene sheikhs depicted in Walter Charles Horsley’s painting, The French in Cairo, watch in anger and dismay as a French soldier dutifully vandalises one of the city’s principal monuments with the words “TOUR NAPOLÉON” (Fig. 1).1 His comrade, whose upright rifle mirrors the staff of the sheikh to his left, salutes the unfinished inscription with his bicorn, demonstrating his commitment to France’s Egyptian campaign, while the irreverent posture of the soldier seated atop the wall overlooking the city reflects the incivility of the foreign occupying force towards the local population and their cultural heritage. The artist explained,

During the occupation of Cairo by the French under General Bonaparte, the latter caused the names of his principal generals to be inscribed upon the towers and gates of the walls of the city. The native population was much incensed by this, the more so that the chief of each quarter was obliged to be present at the work.2

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1884, two years after Britain’s occupation and military intervention in Egypt, Horsley’s humorous historical genre painting reminded viewers of the Napoleonic invasion at a time when the country was largely under British political and military control. Many of the French marshals’ names were still visible near the gates of the Bab al-Nasr and Bab al-Futuh at the time of the Exhibition, leading Henry Blackburn to comment in his review of the painting that the permanency of the inscriptions was “a memorial of the emperor’s love of display, and of his merciless disregard of the feelings of those he conquered.” 3

Although critics did not make explicit comparisons between Britain and France in reviews of the painting, it appears that Horsley intended to draw attention to France’s historic occupation as “part of a discourse which claimed the British ‘right to rule’ in Egypt”.4 This is particularly apparent when The French in Cairo is considered as a companion painting to another of Horsley’s works, The Whirligig of Time—Egypt 1800 and 1884, also displayed that year at the Academy. It featured in Gallery I, indicating that viewers would have seen it before The French in Cairo, which was displayed in Gallery V.

The location of The Whirligig of Time is currently unknown, and unlike The French in Cairo, there is no record that reproductive prints of it were issued; however, based on information gleaned from the few reviews of the painting, it seems that the work comprised a pair of painted studies comparing the conduct of the French and British in Egypt.5 A satirical illustration published by Punch suggests that the work was possibly focused on a direct comparison between a Napoleonic soldier in 1800, and a contemporary British soldier stationed in Egypt in 1884 (Fig. 2). The illustration contrasts an impetuous, armed, French officer waiting to have his boots shined, the shoe shiner representing an obsequious Egyptian official, with that of a stolid British officer, seated with a pipe instead of a rifle. The text under the image reads an “Irritable Frenchman waiting for Shoeblack, who is Otherwise engaged.”6

Considered the better of the two works, The French in Cairo received encouraging reviews, particularly after the poor reception of the artist’s Fighting His Battles O’er Again, a humorous take on the stock-in-trade orientalist subject of the harem, exhibited at the Summer Exhibition in 1883.7 He was praised in particular by The Daily News for the clever “mixture of Orientals and the Western soldiers”, and for sending in a “picture full of character and humour”.8 The ten locals arranged across the canvas recall Horsley’s interest in orientalist subjects, popularised by artists such as John Frederick Lewis, David Roberts, and Frederick Goodall. Each figure represents a different yet characteristic oriental “type”: a veiled woman, an orange seller, fellahin children, bearded merchants, and a Nubian slave (possibly a eunuch seeing that he is the only local man without a beard), who accompanies the wealthier sheikh dressed in a pristine ermine robe and neatly tied pistachio green turban. The sheikh to his left, standing in the centre of his barefoot family, with a comparatively bedraggled robe and loosely tied white turban, reinforces his social standing. The backdrop, described by one reviewer as “flat”, shows the city’s skyline of stucco buildings, and the Mosque of Ibn Tulun’s fountain and minaret, an orientalist architectural trope, in view.9

That the painting was hung on the line reflects the positive reception it received from the Academy Council and Hanging Committee, particularly since in 1884 Horsley was considered a “rising young artist” and thus an outsider at a time when the Academy was routinely criticised for giving works by Academicians pride of place.10 But unlike the innumerable outsider artists who hoped to have their work accepted into the Summer Exhibition, Horsley had the advantage of being a part of the art world’s inner circle. He was the son of eminent Royal Academician John Calcott Horsley, a godson of Queen Victoria, and a dedicated member of the Artists Rifles regiment after being introduced to the Corps in 1873 by Frederic Leighton (elected PRA in 1878) and Valentine Prinsep (elected RA in 1894).11 Horsley initially made a name for himself as a “special artist” and illustrator for The Graphic—he was first employed to record the Prince of Wales’ visit to India in 1875—similar to the battle painters Richard Caton Woodville, Frederic Villiers, and John Charlton, who were posted abroad as artist war correspondents for the illustrated press. Their experiences as “eye-witnesses” of colonial warfare lent their works greater credibility among viewers. Indeed, many of Horsley’s works were either inspired by his work for The Graphic, or painted replicas of his illustrations.12

  1. These sheikhs would either be Shayukh al-haart (sheikhs of the neighbourhoods) or Shayukh al-tumn (sheikhs of the eight districts of Cairo). For more on Cairene harahs, see Susan J. Staffa, Conquest and Fusion: The Social Evolution of Cairo, A.D. 642–1850 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1977).↩︎

  2. Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work from its Foundation in 1769 to 1904 (New York: B. Franklin, 1972), 162,↩︎

  3. The Art Journal mentions the existing inscriptions in “The French in Cairo”, The Art Journal, December 1885, 368; and Henry Blackburn, English Art in 1884: Illustrated by Facsimile Sketches by the Artists (New York: D. Appleton, 1885), 39. Accessed 2 May 2017, The names of French officers can still be seen on the gates of Bab al-Nasr, see Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Islamic Architecture in Cairo: An Introduction, Vol. 3 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989), 68.↩︎

  4. Joan Winifred Martin Hichberger, “The Imperial Crisis”, in Images of the Army: The Military in British Art, 1815–1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), 109. In Hichberger’s study, she notes that battle painters reconstructed history as a means of grappling with contemporary anxieties about current political events. She observes that in the 1880s and particularly the 1890s, “representations of the battles of the Napoleonic era outnumbered contemporary incidents by two to one.” See Hichberger, Images of the Army, 104.↩︎

  5. The French in Cairo was featured as a reproduction in facsimile in the January 1885 issue of The Art Journal, and a facsimile sketch is also featured in Blackburn’s book; Blackburn, English Art in 1884.↩︎

  6. “Our Royal Academy Guy’d”, Punch, 17 May 1884, 232.↩︎

  7. The Athenaeum felt that Whirligig was technically “inferior” to The French in Cairo, 7 June 1884, 733.↩︎

  8. “The Royal Academy”, The Daily News, 4 June 1884. The painting is described as “popular” by The Art Journal, July 1884, 209.↩︎

  9. For more on the European perception of the minaret, see Nebahat Avcioglu, “Identity-as-Form: The Mosque in the West”, Cultural Analysis 6 (2007): 91–112.↩︎

  10. “The Royal Academy”, Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 19 May 1884, 6.↩︎

  11. “Obituary: Colonel W.C. Horsley: Sixty Years with Artists Rifles”, The Times, 21 May 1934, 12. Horsley was Honorary Colonel of the Artists Rifles up until 22 April 1934.↩︎

  12. Descriptions of Horsley’s painting Sister of Mercy, exhibited at the Academy in 1880, indicate that the work was a painted reproduction of his coverage of the Anglo-Afghan War.↩︎

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Explore the 1884 catalogue