My Favourite Painting: Frank Gardner

'The spirit of this 19th-century picture was exactly the same when I arrived in Cairo to live there as a student'

The Marriage of an Arab in Cairo, 1869, about 18in by 12in, by Henri de Montaut (1830–about 1890). Bridgeman Images.

Frank Gardner says:
‘The costumes may have changed, but the spirit of this 19th-century picture was exactly the same when I arrived in Cairo to live there as a student more than 100 years later. I moved in with a large Egyptian family, living in a ramshackle loft in a street exactly like this in a quarter called Khan Gaafar. They kept pigeons on the roof. At night, they would invite me in for backgammon, hubbly-bubbly pipes or a wedding party such as this. Once, someone got over-excited and fired a pistol that brought down some masonry close to the bridegroom’s head and there was a fearful row. But it was all part of the fun of living in what was still effectively a medieval city quarter.’

Frank Gardner is Security Correspondent for the BBC

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘Through Muslim invasion and colonisation, Europe had long been familiar with Arab culture. But Orientalism, the fashion for everything exotically Arabian, did not reach its zenith until the second half of the 19th century. European occupation, colonisation, the advance from grand tours to tourism all stoked the vogue.

By the 1840s, there were western hotels in Cairo and, by 1868, Thomas Cook tours went as far south as Aswan. This unsigned lithograph by French artist Henri de Montaut comes from his Egypte Moderne: Tableaux de Moeurs Arabes Peintes et Descrites. Scenes of souks and bazaars allowed painters to whet the appetites or nurse the memories of tourists. Off-limit harems gave scope for through-the key-hole fantasies of naked beauties cavorting inside. Clamorous wedding processions offered a public spectacle. Orientalism was especially popular in France and England, reflecting imperial interests. In painting, it began with Delacroix and Ingres, and reached a sensuous apogee in the 20th century with Matisse. Lawrence Durrell’s novel The Alexandria Quartet provided a sumptuous Orientalist counterbalance to 1950s postwar austerity.

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Apart from exoticism, the Muslim world had the romantic appeal of appearing to survive from an older, purer time. Eugene-Melchior de Vogü. was just one writer who noticed ‘the intellectual and social horizons of the Islamic world are in many respects comparable to those of our medieval forefathers’. Neo-Gothic architecture, which enjoyed its 19th-century revival as a link with the Age of Faith and the inspiring example of the great cathedrals, was also sometimes considered Islamic in origin.’

This article was first published in Country Life, April 25, 2012