David   Roberts

( Stockbridge, Edinburgh, 24 October 1796 - 1864)




David Roberts was one of a number of artists who specialised in foreign views and became popular in the 1820s and the 1830s. He moved to London in 1822, and within 8 years had risen to become President of the Society of British Artists. Two years later he spent nearly a year in Spain and later visited Egypt, The Holy Land and Syria during 1838-1839. In 1851 and 1853, he went to Italy. Many of the highly finished and richly coloured watercolours he made on these journeys were executed to be reproduced in lavish illustrated books in the form of colour lithographs. There was a vogue in Britain at the time for such publications, especially because they provided views of exotic and faraway places to satisfy a middle-class public which could afford to buy them. Roberts made a highly successful living from the wide sales these books achieved.

He was especially skilled in the refined and precise rendering of architectural detail but he also excelled in the depiction of life and character. His best work is full of the atmosphere of the country and in this lies his enduring appeal.

A painter whose reputation was made by the paintings he did of exotic lands, David Roberts was born and raised in Stockbridge, near Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, John Roberts, was an impoverished shoemaker, who, with his wife Christine, tried to support five children in a small house on Duncan's Land by the Water of Leith. Only two of the children lived to maturity.



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He was apprenticed to a house painter, then worked as a scene painter for a travelling circus and Glasgow and Edinburgh theatres, in 1822, he settled in London and worked at the Drury Lane Theatre with his friend Clarkson Stanfield. From 1831, he travelled widely in Europe and the Mediterranean basin and made a fortune with his topographical views. He worked in oil and watercolour and published lavishly illustrated books, among them the six-volume The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia (1842-1849). His work can be monotonous when seen en masse, but at his best he combines bold design with precise observation.

Travels in Egypt and The Holy Land
The Scottish artist, David Roberts (1796-1864) was the first British artist to sketch the fantastic monuments of ancient Egypt. In the course of two and a half months in 1838, travelling some 800 miles south from Cairo, David Roberts recorded the monumental temple sites along the Nile in more than a hundred sketches.

In 1839, he undertook the second part of his journey, leaving Cairo in the company of two friends, travelling through Suez, Mount Sinai and Petra, and continuing on up through the Holy Land and into modern day Lebanon. Having visited the most remarkable places from Dan to Beersheba, he finally returned home after some eleven months.

Upon his return, David Roberts submitted his drawings to F.G Moon in London, an enterprising publisher, who arranged for Roberts to superintend their reproduction into lithographs, a task entrusted to a Louis Hague. Preparing the plates for production took almost eight years.

David Roberts was born at Stockbridge, Edinburgh, on 24th October 1796, one of five children born to Christine and John Roberts, a shoemaker.

At the age of twelve, Roberts was apprenticed to an Edinburgh decorator, Gavin Beugo. The work was demanding, but the training was to prove invaluable. The prosperous middle classes in the fashionable New Town were developing a taste for the more refined aspects of interior decoration. Roberts soon mastered the techniques of marbling, wood graining and trompe d'oeil panelling. In the evenings he would study art. After having served his apprenticeship with Beugo, Roberts was offered a contract as a scene painter with a travelling circus, and was to spend the next 15 years designing sets for theatres throughout Britain.

In 1820, he had met one Clarkson Stanfield, who was then painting at the Pantheon, Edinburgh. At his suggestion, Roberts had sent three pictures into the Exhibition of Works by Living Artists, held in Edinburgh in 1822. In the same year he had moved down to London, where he initially worked for the Coburg Theatre, and was afterwards employed, along with Clarkson Stanfield, at Drury Lane. In 1824, he exhibited a view of Dryburgh Abbey at the British Institution, and sent two works to the first exhibition of the Society of British Artists.

That autumn Roberts visited Normandy in northern France, and it was the artwork that he produced during this trip that began to lay the foundations of his growing reputation. One of works he produced - a view of Rouen Cathedral, was sold for eighty guineas. In 1829, he exhibited the "Departure of the Israelites from Egypt", in which his style first becomes apparent, but by 1830, Roberts had abandoned the theatre. He was determined to pursue a career as a landscape and architectural artist, and had already earned himself a reasonable reputation as an easel painter. In 1831, he was elected president of the Society of British Artists.

In 1832, he travelled to Spain and Tangiers, returning in the end of 1833 with a supply of effective sketches, elaborated into attractive and popular paintings. His "Interior of Seville Cathedral" was exhibited in the British Institution in 1834, and sold for £300; and he executed a fine series of Spanish illustrations for the Landscape Annual of 1836, whilst in 1837, a selection of his Picturesque Sketches in Spain was reproduced by lithography and published in 1837.

The success of his Spanish sketches and lithographs convinced Roberts that there was a growing demand for visual images of "exotic places". And so it was he decided to travel in an area of the world which, to the Victorians, was the most evocative of all - the Holy Land. The great Biblical epic of the Exodus was to be his starting point.

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Roberts was born in Edinburgh and began his career as a house painter and scene painter in Scotland. He first exhibited easel paintings in the Fine Arts Institution in Edinburgh in 1822, the year that he moved to London to further his scene painting career.

His first exhibition in that town was at the Society of British Artists in 1824, of which he became a member and, in 1831, President.

He first exhibited at the Royal Academy and British Institution in 1826. He resigned from the Society of British Artists in 1835, to become an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1838, and a Member in 1841, gradually abandoning his work as a scene painter in favour of easel painting.

He began to travel in 1824, visiting France. Between 1832 and 1833, he travelled extensively in Spain and Algeria. During the years 1838 and 1839, he visited Egypt and the Holy Land, and in 1851 and 1853, he toured Italy. These visits provided the raw material for many magnificent books illustrated in the newly developed chromolithography, including Picturesque Sketches in Spain during the Years 1832 and 1833 (1837), and Views in the Holy Land (six volumes 1842-1849). They also provided a rich source for his paintings until the end of his life. Unlike the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Roberts did not produce his finished paintings on the spot, but brought back sketches and studies which he used as the basis for studio work in the traditional manner. egyptologyonline.com


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1844

Architectural painter Roberts travelled extensively in the Middle East and was the first artist to be granted permission to sketch inside mosques. This was on the condition that he shave off his side-whiskers, abandon his hog-hair paint brushes and adopt Arab dress. Following his return from the East he sat for this portrait by his friend Robert Scott Lauder, a commission from their mutual friend David Ramsay Hay. Here we see Roberts in the actual clothes he bought in Cairo, with his side-whiskers still shaven. Lauder embraced this opportunity to try his hand at an oriental costume, revelling in the rich colours, folds and textures of the fabric. Roberts commented that Lauder’s rendering of the Arab dress so greatly transformed his face “that my dear old mother would never know me”.

Reference URL: nationalgalleries -- David Roberts, 1796-1864. Artist (In Arab dress) 1840