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Volume 14, Number 1January 1963

In This Issue

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The Middle East In Old Prints

An armchair tour of the old Middle East through artists’ eyes.

The great passenger liners and aircraft of the twentieth century have made journeys to faraway lands almost commonplace. It wasn't always like that. There was a time, not too long ago, when the intercontinental traveler was indeed a rare fellow. But many of those who stayed at home were avid armchair travelers, whose wanderlust fed on the printed word and pictures furnished by the adventurous few who actually visited distant lands. This was, of course, before the days of photography, and the pictures came from the hand of an artist, rather than the lens of a camera. One of the most popular forms of travel artwork was the print.

Woodcuts, which began appearing in the fourteenth century, were the earliest method of making prints. Called relief prints, woodcuts were made by cutting around the image so that the portion to be inked for printing remained raised. Early woodcut artists used soft wood and simple knives. As artists became more skilled, the effects they sought dictated harder wood, which in turn led to the invention of the burin or graver, a small tool made of tempered steel with the graving end ground to a sharp, oblique point.

Sometime around 1450 goldsmiths developed the technique of engraving on metal. No doubt the reason it fell to the goldsmiths to evolve this art was their familiarity with niello work, a method of filling in incised designs on metal to produce ornamental effects.

Both line engraving and etching, which became popular about 400 years ago, are called intaglio printing, meaning that the lines to be duplicated are cut below the surface. In etching, however, acid, rather than a burin, is used to eat into the metal plate. To control the spread of acid, the metal plate is varnished and a needle is used to scratch the lines through the varnish as far as the surface of the metal. The acid then eats into only the exposed metal.

The third method of engraving—lithography—is known as "surface printing" because the areas to be reproduced are level with the surface, neither raised nor lowered. Lithography was introduced in the 1800's and quickly became a popular method of duplicating artwork. In previous techniques, it was common for the artist to supply the engraver with sketches from which to work. Rarely did one find a good artist who was an equally skilled engraver. In lithography, however, the artist drew directly on the stone, and little of his artistry was lost in the technical transfer from stone to paper.

Lithography is based on three principles: the strong adhesion of greasy substances to certain types of stone, the ease with which the stone absorbs water, and the resistance of grease to water. The picture is traced onto the stone with greasy crayons or pencils. Water is then poured over the surface and remains in the areas not covered with grease. An inked roller is passed over the stone, and the ink clings to the greased portions, permitting the paper to receive an impression only of these sections.

Although engraving techniques were constantly improved, engraved prints could not compete with photographic processes that were rapidly perfected after the 1850's. But before their demise, toward the end of the nineteenth century, prints were the primary medium of introducing armchair travelers to the little-known lands beyond their frontiers.

Just the names of some of those distant places conjured exotic images. One of the most popular subjects for scenic prints was the Middle East—an area known to many people only in the visions evoked by books such as The Arabian Nights. Thus the Muslim lands became favorite spots of sojourn for armchair voyagers.

What prints of this era sometimes lacked in accuracy, they gained in charm. Some of the finest impressions of the Levant were done by David Roberts. A Scottish painter born in Edinburgh in 1796, Roberts first made his mark in art through his scenic designs for the Royal Theatre in Edinburgh and the Drury Lane Theatre and Covent Garden in London. As a result of these successes, he became a member of the Society of British Artists.

About this time, he began his world wanderings in search of interesting subjects for his oil and water-color landscapes. His first visit to the Continent spurred a series of sketches of the Gothic ruins of old Normandy towns, which in turn brought him membership in the Royal Academy.

In 1838 Roberts traveled through Syria and Egypt. This tour of the Middle East resulted in a reversal of style. Whereas his pictures of western Europe had been Dutch in feeling—broad in treatment and luminous in color—his scenes of the Middle East were delicate, fine-lined and subdued in hue. Upon his return, he published a lithographed, two-volume set of prints called Sketches in the Holy Land and Syria.

Art historians suggest that the strength of David Roberts' work rises from his gift for artistic composition, architectural effect and drawing of detail. His creations today are as popular as when they first appeared. Of course, in his own day, Roberts' prints of Muslim lands won popularity not only for their beauty but because they offered armchair travelers a chance to journey, at least in their minds, to the distant lands of the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 11-15 of the January 1963 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January 1963 images.