Imagining the east

Once dismissed as imperialist fantasies about the Muslim world, British orientalist paintings are on

A snake writhes over the desert sands that half submerge the Sphinx. A crafty merchant examines a coin presented by two anxious, veiled customers. Heavily laden camels kneel at an encampment. Bored, gorgeously clad concubines lounge in the secret depths of a harem. The British orientalist paintings of Tate Britain's forthcoming exhibition "The Lure of the East" are colourful, exotic, often technically brilliant. But they are also controversial, variously perceived to be collecti ble masterpieces, ugly kitsch, or imperialist fantasies on a par with tabloid images of burqa-clad women and bearded Islamists.

"This exhibition is about paintings, not how they illustrate the relations between west and east," says Nicholas Tromans, the show's curator. The selected 70-odd watercolours, oils and sketches date from the late 18th to the early 20th century, the heyday of British artists' love affair with the Middle East. But it is impossible to disentangle the paintings from the politics; the lure of the east is a permanently touchy subject.

For most of the past century these images of bazaars, curled-toe slippers, slave traders, camels, veiled beauties and silk carpets have been bargain-basement art: unfashionable and, since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, politically unsavoury. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, newly wealthy collectors in the Gulf - including the emirs of Sharjah and Qatar, the sultan of Oman and Saudi princes - began to buy them up. The pre-Raphaelite style of high orientalism crept back into fashion, and international prices rocketed. But even fantastical images are still vulnerable to the peaks and troughs of east-west relations. Seven weeks after the 11 September 2001 attacks, Christie's held a high-profile auction of orientalist art in New York. It was a disaster - once sure-fire favourites, the paintings were now impossible to sell.

The Tate exhibition tells us as much about Britain as about its eastern subjects. "Orientalist art began with British trade, warfare and diplomacy with courts such as this," says Tromans, leading the way into Istanbul's Topkapi Palace, seat of the Ottoman sultans who reigned over the three star cities of orientalist art: Jerusalem, Cairo and Constantinople. The show's earliest paintings are 17th-century portraits of exotically costumed adventurers and diplomats - either Middle Eastern visitors to Britain, such as the turbaned, scowling Moroccan ambassador to Elizabeth I, Abd el-Wahed Ben Massoud Ben Anoun, or westerners, painted in the unfamiliar clothes of their eastern travels.

The exotic outfits were seized upon by the leisured classes of the next century. "Eighteenth-century Britain was swept by a craze for oriental dressing up," explains Tromans, pointing out the original sweeping, brightly coloured silk robes worn by the sultans and their courtiers. In a society addicted to masquerade balls and fancy-dress portraits as temporary holidays from rigid social etiquette, "Turkish dress" became wildly fashionable.

For wealthy British women, eastern fashions meant not simply fun, but freedom. In 1717 the writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu accompanied her ambassador husband to Constantinople. The Turkish Embassy Letters she circulated upon her return caused a sensation by suggesting that the women of the harem, far from being hapless slaves of lascivious orientals, were freer than their "civilised" European sisters.

Jonathan Richardson's imposing 1725 portrait of Lady Mary the celebrity traveller "in Turkish dress" - a low-cut golden robe with jewelled and feathered turban - was equally calculated to cause a stir. Though her portrait costume does not look particularly practical, Montagu championed the liberating qualities of eastern women's clothing, which included loose trousers under knee-length skirts. This "harem costume" eventually became the "reform dress" adopted by Victorian feminists - to public outrage - when campaigning against the crippling women's fashions of the 19th century.

But artists usually turned the harem to less challenging ends. For professional Victorian artists looking to turn a profit, the harem, with its lurid reputation for sex, cruelty and secrecy, was a guaranteed bestseller. Its titillation factor was increased by the fact that prohibitions on enslaving fellow Muslims meant that the sultan's concubines were light-skinned, Christian slaves - Greeks, or "Circassians" from the Caucasus - who were then forcibly converted. To a society gripped by self-righteous anti-slavery fervour following the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833, the combination was irresistible.

"The imperial harem - the 'grand seraglio' - was the prototype for all the artists' imaginings of harems," says Tromans as we look over the sultan's balcony to the stone pool in which his concubines were made to bathe naked before him. And they were imaginings: even though the empty "seraglio" was eventually opened to the public after the fall of the Ottoman empire, frustrated travelling artists discovered that Middle Eastern women's quarters were strictly off-limits. They relied on second-hand reports, typical interiors and posed prostitutes or western models, to often spectacular effect. Some never travelled to the Middle East at all.

The harem craze was fuelled by John Frederick Lewis's 1850 watercolour The Hhareem (not in this exhibition), in which a lounging Muslim nobleman and his three light-skinned wives assess a potential fourth, an Abyssinian slave, unveiled by a laughing black eunuch. Encouraged by the stir it created, Lewis returned to the subject many times. In Hhareem Life, Constantinople (1857), two languid-looking, sumptuously dressed women watch a cat shredding a peacock-feather fan. The atmosphere is heavy with indolence and cruelty.

Lewis's harem paintings are calculatedly sensational, both in their subject matter and in their astonishing draughtsmanship and technical mastery over impossibly complex interiors of carved wood, ceramic tiles, patterned silk and intricate shadows. The Hhareem was described by one critic as "the most extraordinary production that has ever been executed in watercolour". They were also intended, from the details of the rooms and costumes to the "authentically" Arabic "hh" of the titles, to display his intimate knowledge of the world they depicted. Lewis was unique among the orientalist painters in his knowledge of the Middle East, having lived in Cairo for ten years, exhibiting no work but amassing thousands of preparatory sketches.

On his return to London in 1851, Lewis became the pre-eminent orientalist artist. At his modest suburban home in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, he turned his mass of sketches into fantastically detailed and exotic paintings. Images of Cairene street life - such as The Seraff: a Doubtful Coin (1869), in which a two veiled women ne gotiate with a merchant, and romantic desert scenes, such as the virtuosic watercolour A Frank Encampment in the Desert of Mount Sinai, 1842 (1856) - sit beside many repetitions of harem and domestic scenes, often posed by Lewis's wife, Marian. The public adored them and, unusually for such a populist subject, the critics agreed. Even Ruskin, who despised exoticism, rhapsodised over Lewis's technique (in particular his handling of camels' eyes) and begged him to work in durable oils rather than watercolour.

Lewis's painstaking technique and leisurely stay in Cairo were the exception. Most Victorian orientalists were caught in the annual grind of travel-sketch-paint-exhibit-sell, their paintings dictated less by fantasy than economic necessity. "They were permanently worried about meeting budgets and deadlines," explains Tromans. "The Royal Academy exhibition was in May, and if they could sell some paintings there, it might fund the summer's travelling and sketching."

The itinerant lifestyle attracted colourful personalities. Richard Dadd was a Royal Academician and expedition artist in Egypt and Palestine who became delusional while travelling back up the Nile. On his return to Britain in 1843, he murdered his father and spent the rest of his life in Bedlam, and then Broadmoor, secure hospitals. There, Dadd painted strange, dreamlike scenes drawn from his travels in the Middle East, including the moonlit Halt in the Desert (c.1845) and the lurid, apocalyptic Flight Out of Egypt (c.1849-50). Edward Lear, also known for his nonsense poetry, was the 20th child of a suburban family and suffered from untreatable epilepsy and depression. Forced to support himself, he gave up his career in zoological illustration to travel and paint around the Mediterranean. His landscape paintings, including Petra (1859) and Beirut (1861), are highly coloured and stilted, but sketches such as The Dead Sea (1858), scrawled over with diary-style notes of the colours of the hills and clouds, are beautifully vivid.

As fashions in art changed and the British and Ottoman empires declined, so, too, did orientalist painting. Augustus John's famous portrait of T E Lawrence in Arabian dress (1919) was one of the last - a self-conscious throwback to old orientalist celebrity images such as Thomas Phillips's portrait of a robed, turbaned Lord Byron (1814). "Lawrence helped dismantle the Ottoman empire," says Tromans, looking around the garishly decorated apartments of Topkapi. "The last sultan, Mehmet VI, left this palace for ever in 1922. There was no more room for orientalist art." But these paintings, with their luscious colours and intriguing subjects, were created to be popular. Having weathered reversals of fashion and politics, their popularity - despite their post-colonial critics - again seems assured.

"The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting" runs at Tate Britain, London SW1, from 4 June to 31 August. More details:

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack