David Roberts led a life that might have been the model for Horatio Alger's books. Born to poverty in Scotland, he began his artistic career by drawing pictures of wild animals for his proud mother, using a burnt stick and a piece of red chalk on the whitewashed walls of her poor kitchen. He finished it as one of the wealthiest and most respected British artists of his century, his magnificent pictorial record of his journey to the Holy Land patronized by Queen Victoria herself.
David Roberts was born on the 24th of October, 1796, in a village near Edinburgh. His father was a devout but very poor shoemaker. Young David developed a strong dislike for school and from the age of 12 he was apprenticed for seven years to a house painter at the starting pay of two shillings a week. This was the vocation reluctantly chosen for him when his father finally realized that he was not going to have his son as cobbler's assistant, the son who spent all his free time scratching pictures for his enthusiastic mother, on kitchen walls which she kept always freshly whitewashed to encourage him.
Life as an apprentice house painter in those times meant hard work and long hours for a boy. On the other hand, grinding up colors and mixing shades was not bad training for an aspiring artist. Despite the fact that he was sometimes severely treated by his master, young David valued the experience.
In 1816 Roberts joined a company of traveling pantomimists. His father and mother did not at all approve of the job but as Roberts wrote later, "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." The 'pictures' were huge theatrical backdrops and Roberts gradually became skilled in what he termed "aerial perspective", that is, a blending of objects together without hard and accurate lines. He also learned—by necessity—to work with great speed and mastered the art of painting scenery to look like wood or marble, a technique that helped give photographic realism to his later work.
When the pantomimists' company folded, Roberts alternated between decorating houses and painting scenery in theaters. He also continued to paint for his own pleasure, sketching from nature or, in the evenings, painting small oils which he found useful in understanding composition and the play of light and shadow and in perfecting aerial perspective.
By 1823 he had settled in London and was working mostly for the Drury Lane Theater. Soon he was elected a member of the fledgling Society of British Artists—and had started his climb to fame. The following year he traveled on the continent and did many sketches of the cathedrals and monuments, emphasizing minute architectural details and elaborate, almost photographically realistic perspective. Back in London these were worked into romantic paintings, according to the taste of the times, which were exhibited and sold at ever increasing prices. It was not long before David Roberts had gained his first patron, Lord Northwick; his work was being reviewed in the Times; and he was painting stage scenery for Covent Garden. He was particularly pleased when, in 1827, the Royal Scottish Academy was founded and he was asked to exhibit. He was made president of the Society of British Artists in 1830, and then elected a member of the new Garrick Club. (His enormous painting, "Halting of a Caravan at Baalbeck," nearly 7 by 12 feet, still hangs in the theatrical club today.)
By the time Roberts journeyed to Spain, Portugal and Morocco in 1832-33, he was already a celebrated artist. Throughout the journey he sketched and wrote prolifically. He made more than 200 drawings of the people and costumes but said in a letter home, "I begin to doubt whether I shall be able to paint half of them." He did, however, and their issuance, along with the publication of a number of engravings in Landscape Annual, placed Roberts in the foremost rank of contemporary artists.
It was not, however, until he went to the Holy Land that he began what would be remembered as the outstanding achievement of his life. It was, as one biographer later wrote, "the dream of his boyhood, and the great end and aim of his manhood."
Roberts left London in August, 1838, arriving in Alexandria 24 days later. He kept a detailed account of his trip. First impressions of Egypt often deplored by other travelers, the tedium of landing, the smells, the pushing crowds and exotic dress, were to him an artistic inspiration.
Roberts next sailed up the canal joining Alexandria with the Nile, then on to Boulac, the port of Cairo. His first glimpse of the Pyramids from a distance was a tremendous thrill. A few days later he visited them close up. "Not much struck with the size of the great one till I began the ascent, which is no joke," he wrote in his journal. "The Sphinx pleased me even more than the Pyramids." But later when sketching them he noted, "I cannot express my feelings on seeing these vast monuments."
When he left Cairo, in a Nile sailboat flying the British flag, the river was in such full flood that the ascent was slow, and much of the time the boat was rowed, or towed from the bank by its crew. But at last they reached Dendera. It is, he wrote, "the most beautiful of the Egyptian temples, and I shall soon see whether my expectations are to be realized." They were and more. When he had explored the majestic 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 went as far south as the temples at Abu Simbel, "those stupendous edifices," and then began to descend the river, retracing his steps and lingering where he had seen the most interesting subjects: Luxor, Karnak, Idfu, Aswan, Philae. A few sample entries in his journal give an idea of the rhythm of his production:
27th. — Made two drawings of Karnak.
28th. — Made two drawings of the Great Temple at Karnak.
29th. — Made three drawings of Karnak.
30th. — Made two studies in oil, and one general view in pencil.
1st. — Commenced and finished at Luxor. Made three large sketches, one ... coloured.
2nd. — Sunday. ...
3rd. — Visited the Tombs of the Kings. Made a coloured sketch of the valley ...
4th. — Made three coloured sketches of colossal statue in the plain of Thebes.
Soon he had finished more than 100 sketches, "all of them paintable subjects," he wrote in his journal. "I am the first English artist who has been here ... we shall see what impression they make in England..."
Back in Cairo, Roberts spent six busy weeks drawing streets and monuments and even the interiors of the mosques. Muhammad Ali, the Viceroy of Egypt, had given special permission for him to visit them if he promised to wear Turkish dress, and provided he did not use brushes made from pigs' bristles. Roberts conformed wholeheartedly. "Having taken such a long journey, I must not stick at trifles." He wore a beautiful Cashmere shawl wound around his head and even cut off his whiskers.
All along, Roberts had planned to go to Palestine and Syria, but towards the end of his stay in Cairo he was invited to join a party of British friends who were going to the Holy Land by way of Petra. Roberts was delighted. "If God spares me in life and health," Roberts wrote to his daughter, "I expect to bring home with me the most interesting collection of sketches that has ever left the East."
The first goal was St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai. It took them ten days. Five days were spent in the monastery, and anyone looking at Roberts' drawings can see that he did not waste a moment of his time.
In Petra they were able to obtain permission from the local shaikh to stay and pitch their tents among the ruins; previous travelers had been hustled through. Roberts wrote in his diary, "I am more and more astonished and bewildered with this extraordinary city ..." then continued in dismay, "I have often thrown my pencil away in despair of even being able to convey any idea of this extraordinary place." Fortunately he always picked it up again.
The party moved on through southern Palestine, visiting Hebron and Gaza. After the desert of Sinai Roberts was delighted by the olive orchards and orange groves of the Arab farmers in the hills and along the coast. In Jaffa they changed from camels to horses and then, while riding up towards Jerusalem, Roberts noted in his journal, they 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."
Thanks to the kindness and help of the Turkish governor, Roberts was able to sketch most of the sites in and around Jerusalem, Bethany, Jericho, Bethlehem, and many of the colorful ceremonies and processions of Easter week.
After Jerusalem, Roberts separated from his friends, who were returning to Egypt, and continued with a guide to Nablus, Nazareth and Galilee, then on to St. Jean d'Acre, up the coast to Tyre, Sidon and Baalbek.
Through it had begun to rain as Roberts rode on towards the Roman ruins at Baalbek and he felt ill with fever, he was so struck with the magnificence of the great temple that he could not resist visiting it at once. "The beauty of its form, the exquisite richness of its ornament, and the vast magnitude of its dimensions, are altogether unparalleled."
From Lebanon Roberts sailed for Alexandria where the British Consul General welcomed him again and took him to meet Muhammad Ali at his summer palace. Roberts sketched the audience: the Viceroy sitting cross-legged on a red divan on the terrace of the palace in Alexandria harbor surrounded by courtiers, the British Consul General talking to him, perhaps about the proposed overland route to India, since Lt. Waghorn (Aramco World , November-December, 1968) is sitting with them.
From Alexandria Roberts sailed on to Malta where he was kept in quarantine for three weeks. Then, at last, he was able to write in his journal, "Landed safely, thank God, in London, on the 21st of July, having been eleven months absent."
Since it had been a costly trip, Roberts quickly suggested that his publishers issue a picture book of the Holy Land. Both his former publishers, Messrs. Finden, and John Murray, turned down his scheme (having estimated that it would require a capital outlay of £ 10,000 sterling), but F.G. Moon of 20 Threadneedle St. undertook the risk of publishing the books as Roberts had proposed. The work would be entitled The Holy Land, and would appear in three volumes: the total cost to the public would be £ 52 sterling, 10 shillings—more than $125 even at today's exchange rates, and an enormous sum for a century ago. Roberts would receive £3,000 for the use of the drawings. The great lithographer, Louis Haghe, would draw the plates directly on stone, under the watchful eye of Mr. Roberts.
To launch this great venture, Roberts exhibited his finished drawings and paintings in London, Edinburgh and other principal cities, and a subscription list was opened for those interested in buying the three volumes. The response was extraordinary. Queen Victoria and the Archbishops of York and Canterbury led off with their beneficial blessings, and by May, 1841, (a few months after Roberts had been elected to the Royal Academy), the publisher had twice as many subscriptions as anticipated.
In 1842 Mr. Moon published the following notice: "The Holy Land: Views in Palestine, Egypt and Syria, from drawings made on the spot by David Roberts, R.A., with historical and descriptive notes by the Rev. George Groly, LLD., Rector of St. Stephen's, London. This work will be published in parts, each containing six facsimiles of the original drawings, executed in lithography under the inspection of the artist, at £ sterling 1.10.0; proofs £ sterling 1.11.6, and a few copies, coloured and mounted in imitation of the original drawings in a portfolio at £ sterling 2.2.0."
The work appeared in parts between the years 1842-49, Haghe's lithographs hand colored by women artists who carefully copied Roberts' original sketches. The large plates measured 19 by 13 inches, and the vignettes 13 by 9 inches. There were 250 engraved plates in all, divided equally between Egypt and Syria. A subscription list and title page were issued to each subscriber to bind up with the books. (Subscribers bound their parts as they liked so that today one finds complete sets in from two to eight volumes.) The subscription list contains 634 names. Queen Victoria was followed by seven kings, emperors and rulers; then came two archbishops, the Duke of Wellington and eight marquises. Ten earls and countesses, six viscounts and eleven lords followed. It was all very grand and very snobbish.
By 1855 a cheaper edition in six volumes was produced by Day & Son, and D. Appleton & Co. brought out an American edition with plates lithographed in small size. Roberts' fame was now world-wide. He traveled and sketched in Italy and he continued to paint, often commanding well over ^500 for a major work. He became a member of at least nine societies and academies, including one in America, the Academy of Arts in Philadelphia. He was received everywhere with great acclaim, even dining with the King of the Belgians when in Brussels.
In 1864, still at the pinnacle of his popularity and the climax of the Horatio Alger success story, Roberts was seized with apoplexy in the street one evening and died suddenly at the age of 68. He had been painting that same morning, one of a new series he was working on, "London from the Thames."
In a little over 40 years Roberts had painted and sold nearly 280 large oil paintings, over 50 of which were of the Holy Land. Where are they all today? As a painter it cannot be said that he has survived the test of time. He has gone the way of most of the sentimental Victorians. But the story of his drawings has a different ending, though for a long time his work was almost completely forgotten. At one point even A.E. Newton, the great American bibliophile and book collector, said that Roberts' folios of the Holy Land were "only fit to be stored under the bed or on a billiard table."
But time proved Newton wrong. As people's tastes came full circle there was a new appetite for old prints. That fact, coupled with the great interest today in the Middle East, helped bring about a deserved revival of Roberts' popularity. Once again he ranks among the best of the pictorial chroniclers of the Holy Land. No one remains long in the Middle East today without acquiring some Roberts prints, as a result of which prices of originals have soared and a complete bound set is almost impossible to come by. There is still something for everyone, however, original or copy, colored or uncolored, large or small, for Roberts prints now appear in calendars, on Christmas cards, in guidebooks and programs. And as you might very well say about the hero of an Alger book, "It couldn't have happened to a nicer—or more talented—fellow."
John Brinton is the author of a series of articles on interesting personalities who contributed to the history of the Middle East in the 19th century.