Watercolour with touches of bodycolour on buff paper, signed lower middle and inscribed and dated ‘1839’ lower left
Image size: 8 1/2 x 12 1/4 inches (22 x 31 cm)
Acid free mount and period style gilt frame
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This original watercolour by Roberts depicts the temple at Baalbek with the ruined palace behind, seen from the opposite bank of a brook, where a group of figures are seated and kneeling around a table, with an arched bridge nearby.
David Roberts was the first professional British artist to travel independently to the Middle East in 1838. He was the first British artist to draw the ruins of Ancient Egypt and Roberts produced a series of finished watercolours, including the painting, which he had worked up from sketches made during his tour.
Like many British artists he used the familiar visual language of European landscapes to capture the unfamiliar scenery. By using architectural motifs to provide structure to compositions like this he is able to present a dramatic scene of classical grandeur, illuminated by sunlight complemented by a large area of shade in the foreground.
The dramatic scene is enhanced by the three groups of figures, which convey the sense of scale. The figures also give the picture richer, darker and redder tones that contrast with the sandy colours of the architecture. This painting uses a lot of the essential ingredients that make up a picturesque scene: distant mountains, classical ruins and figures for human interest and to convey motion.
Robert’s Trip to Baalbek
David Roberts visited Baalbek near the end of his travels around Egypt and the Middle East. Roberts and his party rode to the site of Baalbek on 2nd May in a heavy-rain storm. He was miserable, totally drenched and feverish. But the sight of the ancient Roman settlement rallied him. Despite his physical debilitation, ‘I was… so much struck with the magnificence of the temple, that I could not resist visiting and examining it’. The storm then continued through the night, pummelling the traveller’s tents. In the morning, Roberts felt extremely ill and sought the help of a Greek priest, who found him dry shelter in a cowshed. For the first time on his gruelling journey, Roberts devoted the whole day to bed rest.
On May 4th, regaining some strength, Roberts explored the site. With obscure origins connected with the god Baal, the city of Baalbek had grown to importance in Hellenistic times, when it was known as Heliopolis (‘The City of the Sun’). In the first century B.C. the Romans had established a cult of the Heliopolitan Jupiter there, and both Josephus Flavius, in 64 B.C. and Strabo mention the city as a centre for worship of the solar incarnation of the head deity of their pantheon. The city remained prominent through the seventh century, when the Arab residents of Baalbek turned the temples into fortresses. Conquered by Saladin and plundered by Tamerlane, the city saw its glory finally reduced to rubble in a series of earthquakes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
But what remained on the site testified to Baalbek’s former grandeur. Roberts marvelled at the mastery of Roman architects and masons, claiming that their stones were cut and laid with such accuracy that mortar was not needed. Despite his ill health, Roberts worked for four days, finding the grand ruins of Baalbek as wondrous as anything he had seen along the Nile.
Roberts was a Scottish painter, the son of a shoemaker, he was apprenticed to a house-painter. From 1816 until 1830 he was employed in the theatre to design and paint stage scenery, first in Edinburgh and Glasgow and after 1822 in London. While in Scotland he met and worked with Clarkson Stanfield and later collaborated with him in London on dioramas and panoramas. Roberts exhibited his first easel painting in London in 1824 and at the Royal Academy in 1826 (View of Rouen Cathedral, no. 221; untraced).
In common with other contemporary painters of picturesque topography and architecture, such as Stanfield, J. D. Harding and James Holland, Roberts undertook journeys abroad in search of exotic or impressive subjects. He made his first visit to Spain in 1832-3, one of the first British artists to travel there. From Spain, Roberts briefly visited Morocco; later he made watercolours from sketches by other artists for engraving in T. H. Horne’s Landscape Illustrations of the Bible (1836). These encounters with the oriental world, in the context of contemporary interest in exotic places, especially the lands of the Bible, encouraged him to undertake a tour of the Near East in 1838. He was one of the first independent and professional British artists to experience the Orient at first hand.
Roberts arrived in Jerusalem at Easter 1839, having travelled from Egypt via Sinai and Petra; later he continued north to Lebanon and departed from Beirut in May. His drawings show his ability to create visually effective compositions from a variety of subjects.
Roberts’s eastern compositions reached a wide audience through 247 lithographs made by Louis Haghe. Originally published in parts, these were later bound into six volumes as The Holy Land, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia (1842-9.
He was elected ARA in 1838 and RA in 1841.