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Specializing in Oriental and Mediterranean scenes, he was born in London in 1805, the son of landscape painter and engraver Frederick Christian Lewis (1779-1856).
In the early years of his career, Lewis spent much of his time studying and drawing animals along with his friend, Edwin Landseer. In 1827, he moved out of his family's house and set up his own studio. From then on, he began painting almost exclusively in watercolors. He also switched from animals and sporting subjects to landscapes, interiors and figure studies. In March of 1827, Lewis became an Associate of the Old Water-Colour Society (O.W.C.S.) and was appointed a full member in June of 1829.
In 1829 he accompanied his father to Devonshire and later traveled extensively in Scotland. 1829 marks the beginning of his travels to the Continent by his trip to Spain. In Madrid, he copied paintings of the Prado, and then passed through Toledo to Granada and the Alhambra. There he made many sketches of the Moorish architecture as in his painting titled Courtyard of the Alhambra (c.1834). He then moved on to Seville and made a short trip to Morocco, gaining his first exposure to Islamic life. In 1834 Lewis returned to London for two years during which time Sketches and Drawings of the Alhambra (1835) was published, to be followed in 1836 by Lewis' Sketches of Spain and Spanish Character.
He left England again in 1837 and did not return for fourteen years. Lewis spent the winter of 1837 in Paris, France, then moving on to Florence, Naples and Rome. He lived and painted in Rome for two years, sending Easter Day at Rome to the O.W.C.S. in 1841. He left Rome for Egypt and presumably spent c. 10 years living in the Middle East and painting scenes of Islamic life.
He returned to London in 1851, got married, and drew on his Middle Eastern experiences for his paintings for the next 25 years. In the late 1850s he exhibited mainly oil paintings. Lewis employed a very precise technique, generally likened to the Pre-Raphaelites which is especially evident in the detailed studies of Eastern decor and in his painting of flowers. In 1859, he was elected Associate to the Royal Academy and became a full member in 1865.
Considered one of the finest Orientalist painters, Lewis' work is owned by a number of museums in Britain, including the Tate Collection in London and the Birmingham Museum.
Lewis died at his home in the summer of 1876.