David Roberts, scenery and panorama painter, illustrator, sketchist, oil painter, watercolour artist, and exponent of the ‘camera lucida’, was born in Edinburgh on the 24th of October, 1796.
David Roberts was a bit of a tourist and instead of sending home postcards during his travels abroad, he famously sketched and painted the people, places and scenes he encountered. Not content with producing holiday pictures for the family, he solicited subscriptions for numbered editions of his pictures and volumes of illustrations. He is most famous for the prolific output from his travels in Egypt and the Holy Land, but he also visited Spain, before it became ‘the’ destination for British tourists, although he never went to Torremolinos or the Costa Muchos. He spent long periods in Egypt and the Near East and when he got back, he created a series of large scale oil paintings from the sketches he had made and spent eight long and patient years producing an album of lithographic prints. Queen Victoria pulled rank and got album number one, whilst the others went to prominent sponsors and subscribers. Queen Vic’s patronage also extended to his having been commissioned to paint a picture of the opening of the ‘Great Exhibition’ of 1851 (how could he have said “no!”?).
Roberts also travelled on the Continent and in addition to English and Scottish scenes, Roberts painted views of really exciting places like Amiens, Caen, Dieppe, Rouen, Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent. However, his oil paintings from Spain, where he visited the likes of Madrid, Toledo, Segovia, Cordova, Granada, Cadiz and Seville, are seriously far more exciting. Roberts made more than two hundred sketches in Spain and once wrote, “I begin to doubt whether I shall be able to paint half of them.” He sometimes made several, subtly differing, paintings of the same scene, but he was probably mischievously thinking of future collectors getting all worked up over each minor variation. After more than a hundred and fifty years, David Roberts’ paintings are still popular and his illustrations of Egypt and highly sought after.
David Roberts was born on the 24th of October, 1796, in Stockbridge, Edinburgh. His family encouraged his artistic talents from an early age as he spent his boyhood sketching the Scottish landscape, monuments and castles. When David was ten, on the advice of the Director of the Trustees Academy in Edinburgh, he was apprenticed to a decorative house-painter. For seven years, he learned to produce murals and, although he studied art at evening classes, he was never formally schooled in art. In fact, everything he needed for his later career, from a practical and technical perspective, he learned during his apprenticeship. In 1816, Roberts joined the Pantheon Theatre, a troupe of travelling pantomimists from Edinburgh. He became a painter of theatrical backdrops and stage scenery, and learned to paint rapidly yet accurately, which was something that would come in handy later in his life. Three years later, he took a similar job with the Theatre Royal in Glasgow, which lasted a year before he was back in Edinburgh at its Theatre Royal.
During that period, he began painting in oils and devoted his efforts to perfecting various skills and techniques. In 1821, he gained his first recognition when three of his paintings were exhibited by the Edinburgh Fine Arts Institution. Then, in 1822, he moved to London, where he took a job as a scene designer at the Coburg Theatre (now the ‘Old Vic’). He then moved to yet another Theatre Royal, the one in Drury Lane, where he collaborated with the artist, William Clarkson Stanfield. Two years later, he exhibited for the first time at the coveted British Institution gallery and became a founding member of the new Society of British Artists. That same year, he made his first tourist trip, to Normandy, and when he got back, he sold his painting of Rouen Cathedral for eighty guineas. Three years after that success he was commissioned by the Covent Garden Theatre to do the sets for the London premiere of Mozart’s ‘Die Entführung aus dem Serail’. By 1829, he was making a fine living as a full-time artist, thank you very much and had developed his own style; apparent when he exhibited the ‘Departure of the Israelites from Egypt’. He was elected President of the Society of British Artists in 1831 and began to think about travelling a bit more.
Roberts was a pioneer in terms of drawing and painting the magnificent wonders of ancient Egypt, such as the Sphinx, the Pyramids, and the great temples of Philae, Dendra and Aboosimble. Of great interest is the detail in his painting of the Sphinx at Giza as Roberts, of course, was there before the modern, concrete additions; added on the advice of archaeologists to support the headdress. He also spent time in the Holy Land, creating sketches with which to recreate, in oils and watercolours, ancient sites like St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai. Roberts was so struck by the grandeur of the legendary rock city of Petra that he wrote, “I am more and more astonished and bewildered... I have often thrown my pencil away in despair of even being able to convey any idea of this extraordinary place.” However, he did succeed as the famous lithograph of ‘el Khasne’ testifies.
Roberts’ adventures in the Middle East throughout 1838 and 1839 can be described as one of the most ambitious artistic enterprises of the 19th Century. It was also a dangerous venture, travelling by ‘dhahabiyeh’ (a boat) in the crocodile invested Nile, through territory where the Arab slave trade was still in full operation, or in a caravan on the Sinai, where there was the risk of having his throat slit by marauding Bedouin. Bizarrely, the first thing he had to do on hiring his boat was to deliberately sink it in the Nile to kill off the rats with which it was infested. Roberts was deeply depressed by the extreme poverty, inhuman conditions, chained captives and the “ruthless system of conscription” and “lamentable lack of hygiene” he encountered. But he soldiered on manfully, even continuing to sketch the ruins of Baalbec whilst suffering from a fever and practically unable to stand. Fame and fortune awaited on his return.
His great works were sold by private subscription in a six folio volume deluxe set, in which all 248 lithographs, created by Louis Haghe, were hand coloured by virgins – nah, it was really a team of female artists. In 1842, his publisher proudly announced: “The Holy Land: Views in Palestine, Egypt and Syria, from drawings made on the spot by David Roberts, R.A.” The entire set was completed in 1849 after nearly eight years of devoted labour. David Roberts became a member of at least nine Societies and Academies, including the Academy of Arts in Philadelphia, and in 1858, he was presented with the Freedom of his home City of Edinburgh. He died of apoplexy whilst at work on a painting of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the seventh in a series of London landmarks, on the 25th of November, 1864, and was buried in Norwood Cemetery.