Frederick Goodall was the son of the successful engraver Edward Goodall, who taught his son to paint. He began exhibiting scenes of rural peasant life at the Royal Academy in his teens, and these, together with the British history subjects Goodall painted in the 1850s, were made popular through the engravings done after them by his father. The direction of Goodall’s art changed completely, however, when he travelled to Egypt in 1858 and adopted oriental themes inspired by his experiences of living in Cairo and journeying across the country in the company of the Bavarian-born orientalist genre painter Carl Haag.
Back in London, Goodall started exhibiting Egyptian scenes with biblical allusions based on the settings and landscape of which he had recently become enamoured. His growing reputation in the art world of the 1860s led to his election as a Royal Academician and an important solo exhibition at Burlington House of 50 Egyptian oil sketches, which were purchased en bloc by the influential art dealer Ernest Gambart.
As he explained in his Reminiscences (1902), Goodall returned to Egypt in 1870, in the company of his brother Edward Angelo Goodall, with the purpose of painting ‘scriptural subjects’. This second journey also provided him with material for numerous watercolours depicting Egyptian pastoral scenes, of which An Arab home is a characteristic example. Shortly after it arrived in Sydney in 1894, the watercolour was mentioned in The Sydney Morning Herald: ‘The spectator faces a tent with camel-cloth burnous covering, beneath which figures are sitting, whilst in the foreground outside a woman is feeding her goats. This valuable work shows the clear desert light of early morning, and the atmospheric effect is achieved with delicacy.’
Goodall described his time among Bedouin encampments at Sakkara on the edge of the desert: ‘With these Bedouin I stopped three months, painting the women weaving and the Arabs spinning the wheel, shearing sheep, taking their flocks to and from the pasture, grinding the corn with two stones… Their mode of life, in short, is just as it is described in the Bible, excepting that they use guns instead of spears.’
Goodall purchased a small flock of Egyptian sheep, which he had sent to England to roam the grounds of his imposing Norman Shaw residence, Graeme’s Dyke, at Harrow Weald, where he lived in high style. The sheep, ‘which were marvellously tame and would follow folk who tempted them with dates’, found their way into many Goodall compositions painted in subsequent years.
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017