Imagining the East Once Dismissed as Imperialist Fantasies about the Muslim World, British Orientalist Paintings Are Once Again Becoming Popular. Their Exotic Visions Tell Us Much about the Social and Cultural History of Victorian Britain, as Rachel Aspden Reports

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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 collectible 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 fancydress 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. …