David Roberts was born in Stockbridge on October 24th, 1796. His parents were poor, his father being a shoe maker. From an early age, Roberts displayed a distinct artistic talent. On the advice of the director of the Trustees Academy at Edinburgh, he was apprenticed to a house-painter at the age of ten. This eventually involved decorative and mural-like work and lasted approximately seven years. It was hard work but would provide the future artist with a practical knowledge of how to paint in various mediums.
In 1816, just shy of twenty, the young David Roberts joined a troupe of travelling pantomimists as a theatrical backdrop painter, to the dismay of both parents. But as the artist later wrote, “To travel in company with strolling players…might not be very respectable, but it gave me an opportunity of seeing England, and of painting pictures on a large scale.” It also gave Roberts experience and skill in what he termed “aerial perspective,” blending objects together without a hard and definite line. Moreover, and this would particularly come in handy later on, he learned to paint rapidly yet accurately.
In 1820 he married a young Scottish actress. The marriage was not a happy one and shortly after their only child Christine was born, the marriage was dissolved. Roberts’s chief biographer, James Ballantine, cites his wife’s drinking as the reason for the failed marriage. He never remarried nor, as far as we know, had any intimate female liaisons. He always remained, however, close to his daughter.
In 1823, aged 26, he moved permanently to London where he worked for the Drury Lane Theatre. In 1824, he exhibited his first picture for the British Institution, a highly coveted gallery featuring only the finest works, in 1824. He would also become a founding member of the new Society of British Artists.
The year 1824 was an important one in David Robert’s life. That year he made his first trip to Europe, sketching many of the monuments and cathedrals with great, almost photographic precision. When he returned, he turned these sketches into his first real “romantic travel” paintings, then in great vogue. Some were exhibited and sold in ever-increasing prices. Soon he had his first patron, Lord Northwick; his work was reviewed (favourably) in The Times. Yet he was still obliged to continue painting stage scenery, albeit now at the prestigious Covent Garden (his seventeen scenes for their production of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio in 1826 created a sensation and made his name nationally known).
In 1827, the newly-founded Royal Scottish Academy exhibited his paintings and in 1830 he was elected president of the Society of British Artists. Saving his money (and on the advice of a friend and fellow Scot artist David Wilkie), Roberts set out for Spain in 1832.
Even before his trip, and certainly after it, Roberts had established a reputation as an important architectural artist. If not celebrated, he was on the verge of earning his living now on commissions alone, any artist’s dream. The trip took him not only to Spain but Portugal and Morocco. After visiting Burgos, Madrid, Toledo, Segovia, Cordova, Granada, Malaga, Gibraltar, Cadiz and Seville, he settled down in Spain for several months, working up some of his sketches in oil. In all, he would depart with more than 200 sketches of both people and places, although confessing in a letter home, “I begin to doubt whether I shall be able to paint half of them.” On his return from Spain, in 1833, several of his sketches were published by Jennings in three issues of The Landscape Annual.
The following year Roberts was elected an associate to the Royal Academy, the usual step before being initiated as a full member.
So, on a warm summer day in late August, 1838, Roberts departed for his journey. Travelling via Paris and the Rhine valley, he arrived in Marseilles on 11 September. From there a steamer carried him on to Malta and the Greek Cycladian isles to his arrival, on the 24th of the month, on the African continent at Alexandria. The journey thus far had occupied twenty-four days. Alexandria was the home of Colonel Campbell, British consul – from whom Roberts would secure that most valuable of documents – a firman or edict allowing him to travel freely throughout the country.
In his detailed travel journal, David Roberts relates with great enthusiasm the sights, colours, and smells of his first impressions of this strange new land. Writing a few days later, in Cairo, after visiting the Pyramids of Giza, he wrote: “Not much struck with the size of the great one till I began the ascent, which is no joke. The Sphinx pleased me even more than the Pyramids.” Later, however, when sitting down to draw these unique edifices of stone, he was forced to admit, like so many others, that “I cannot express my feelings on seeing these vast monuments.”
From Cairo, he hired a dhahabiyeh, the standard boat of transport for the relatively affluent traveller (the cost of the boat, including the captain and a crew of eight was about £15 per month, a substantial sum). Leaving on 6 October, their initial progress was slow due to the high flood of the Nile that year. The boat often had to be rowed or towed from the bank by his hired crew (A second boat accompanied Roberts’s, with a certain “Mr. A.” and “Mr. V,” as well as a Captain Nelly of the 77th or East Middlesex Regiment, who appears in several of David Roberts’s drawings.)
From Roberts’s journal we know that the heat was particularly intense, even in this “Winter” season. Once, one of the boats had to be deliberately sunk to rid it of rats. And many times the hostile behaviour of the locals made visiting (not to mention sketching) the monuments a trying ordeal. Reaching Dendera, at the time (due to its preservation) considered one of the greatest of all Egyptian antiquities, David Roberts at first doubted whether its reputation would hold up (he had done extensive research in preparation for his journey, including the language and customs of the native populations). But after exploring the ruins, he wrote, “I reached my boat overcome by melancholy reflections on the mutability of all human greatness, and the perishable nature of even the most enduring works of human genius.”
Roberts continued as far south as Abu Simbel (“those stupendous edifices”), having decided to make the longer stops necessary for sketching the monuments he thought most interesting on the homeward journey.
27 November: Made two drawings of Karnak.
28 November: Made two drawings of the Great Temple at Karnak.
29 November: Made three drawings of Karnak.
30 November: Made two studies in oil, and one general view in pencil.
1 December: Commenced and finished at Luxor. Made three large sketches, one…coloured.
2 December: Sunday…
3 December: Visited the Tombs of the Kings. Made a coloured sketch of the valley….
4 December: Made three coloured sketches of colossal statues in the plain of Thebes.
It may be noted that Roberts, like virtually all architectural painters at the time, was assisted in his observations by the camera lucida (light box), a device that projected the object desired via a prism onto a sheet of paper. This facilitated such spectacular perspective renderings as “View from under the Portico of the Temple of Edfu.”
Eventually David Roberts had finished more than 100 sketches, “all of them paintable subjects,” gleefully adding, “I am the first English artist who has been here, we shall see what impression they make in England.” Luckily he had survived a near-fatal ordeal to his entire enterprise. While in Abydos he accidentally left behind a large portfolio of Nubian sketches not realizing it until well after his departure. Fortunately, this precious cache would be retrieved and returned to the artist by his servant within four days, an eternity no doubt to Roberts, whose whole vast scheme was now in dire jeopardy. A greatly relieved Roberts finally settled down in Cairo for a further six weeks, where he now took the time to capture what he thought the most interesting architectural aspects of the city.
Upon arrival, he was heartened by a letter from his daughter notifying him of his elevation to full member of the Royal Academy, which would take effect in 1840.
Through the generosity of Muhammad Ali, the Viceroy of Egypt, he had been given unprecedented access to the mosque interiors, provided that he wear only Turkish dress and refrained from using brushes made from pigs’ bristles.
One such sketch also provided Roberts with a memory he would look back on with great relief. While drawing the interior of the Mosque of El Ghoree, David Roberts noticed a group of weavers adding a motif in bright gold to a large silk garment. Letting his curiosity get the better of him, he knelt down to touch the fabric. Immediately the ensuing silence alerted him to having committed a grave error as he noticed his Egyptian escort put his finger to his lip and then draw it across his throat. Although he instinctively bowed and slowly retreated backwards out of the room, his mortification can be vividly appreciated from his own words on 6 January: “It makes my hair stand on end to think what terrifying punishment would have been inflicted on me for my involuntary crime if it had become known that the sacred drapery had been contaminated by the touch of an infidel, a Christian dog, and I had been caught.”
It took ten days of desert trekking to reach St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai. There they remained five days, during which time Roberts drew sketches that would become some of the Holy Land’s most memorable plates. Roberts then went to Petra, that legendary rock-carved city that had only become known to westerners since its “discovery” by the Swiss orientalist Johann Burckhardt in 1812 (one year later he would also rediscover the Great Temple at Abu Simbel). Through the permission of the local sheik Roberts’s group was allowed to encamp within the ruined city itself. This was a rare opportunity as previous travellers were hurriedly escorted through (no doubt because of the danger of warring local tribes) and Roberts made the most of it.
Then he travelled to southern Palestine, Hebron and Gaza, where Roberts parted from Kinnear. The orchards of olives and oranges were a refreshing sight after so much desert. In Jaffa horses were traded for camels, while Roberts, going on to Jerusalem, passed through “richly cultivated country. The ground…carpeted with flowers, the plain…studded with small villages and groups of palm trees…the country is the loveliest I ever beheld.”
Reaching Jerusalem at Easter, Roberts was lucky to ingratiate himself with the local Turkish governor, whose permission gave David Roberts liberty to sketch all the sights he wished around the city as well as Bethany, Jericho, and Bethlehem (he was even invited personally to accompany the governor on an outing of pilgrims who plunged naked into the river Jordan).
While his original itinerary called for him to end his journey in Damascus, Roberts caught a fever while riding to Baalbec in a driving rain, sketching the magnificent ruins while barely being able to stand or even eat. (So overcome by the ruins’s splendor, he could not be persuaded to rest. Lucky for us, as one of his Baalbec sketches, the famous Temple Door, remains one of the series’ most sought-after prints.) But, exhausted, Roberts prudently decided he would have to begin the journey home. So, sailing from Lebanon to Alexandria he then continued on to Malta and finally, on to England.
The work required a team of woman artists carefully colouring each lithograph that had been prepared by Louis Haghe, assisted by his brother Charles. The entire set (with 250 separate lithographs equally divided between the Holy Land and Egypt) was completed only in 1849, thus taking nearly eight years of intensive labour and devotion by the many individuals engaged.
As for David Roberts, he was increasingly honoured internationally, becoming a member of at least nine societies and academies. Roberts was at work upon a picture of St. Paul’s Cathedral, when he died suddenly of apoplexy at the age of sixty-eight, on 25 November, 1864. He is buried in Norwood Cemetery.