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Volume 28, Number 4July/August 1977

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Brooding Gothic

Written by John M. Munro

Most Westerners who know the Middle East are familiar with the handsome prints by the 19th-century British artist David Roberts (see Aramco World, March-April 1970). Less well known—until recently—was a younger contemporary of Roberts', William Henry Bartlett, another industrious British artist who left an extensive visual record of the Middle East as it was more than a century ago.

Bartlett has been called the poor man's Roberts, and certainly if one compares his brooding, shadowy engravings with Roberts' meticulously drawn lithographs he does seem wanting. Yet Bartlett's landscapes have their own particular charm, and many people like the fact that they frequently resemble a 19th-century stage set for a Wagner opera more than the real scene they supposedly depict. Today the hundreds of drawings and sketches which Bartlett brought back from his travels are being sought by collectors as avidly as Roberts' were a decade ago.

William Henry Bartlett was born in Kentish Town, a suburb of London, in 1809. In 1823, he was apprenticed to John Britton, an architect, who sent him around England to sketch and study from nature. Although Bartlett's talents are more readily apparent in his landscapes than in his buildings, after his return to London Britton sent him to Bristol, Gloucester and Hereford to make drawings for his Cathedral Antiquities of England, a series of engravings published between 1814 and 1832. After this Bartlett also produced a number of elaborate drawings for Britton's Picturesque Antiquities of English Cities, which appeared in 1828-30.

Although Bartlett continued to devote much of his energy to drawing scenes in his native Britain, he also began, after 1830, to travel more widely, at first visiting the principal cities of Europe and then, moving eastward, exploring Greece, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, the northern Arabian Desert and Egypt. He toured the Middle East again between 1842 and 1845, and returned for a third visit in 1853.

These journeys provided him with more than 1,000 drawings, which were published with descriptive texts by writers who accompanied him on his travels. His output was prodigious and a steady stream of travel books was published, embellished with his illustrations: Switzerland (1836), Syria and the Holy Land (1836-38), Holland and Belgium (1837), The Waldenses (1838), Beauties of the Bosphorus (1840) and The Danube (1844). From 1836 to 1852 he also made four voyages to the United States and Canada which provided him with material for American Scenery (1840) and Canadian Scenery (1842).

Eventually Bartlett began to write his own texts to accompany his illustrations. He produced Walks About Jerusalem (1844), Forty Days in the Desert(1848), The Nile-Boat or Glimpses of Egypt (1849), Gleanings on the Overland Route (1851), Footsteps of Our Lord and His Apostles in Syria, Greece and Italy (1851), Pictures from Sicily (1853) and The Pilgrim Fathers (1853). On September 13, 1854, while returning from the East, he died on board ship between Malta and Marseilles, and was buried at sea. His last book, Jerusalem Revisited, was published posthumously the same year.

Like Roberts, and indeed like most early 19th-century landscape artists, Bartlett had an unflagging eye for the picturesque. Unlike Roberts, however, whose somewhat frigid pageants are invariably saved by his steady devotion to detail, Bartlett preferred the Gothic effect, revealing a distinct preference for ruined castles, dark chasms, precipitous headlands and desolate wastes, which he rendered with greater feeling for drama than fidelity to fact.

Although Roberts posed his human figures in graceful attitudes of studied negligence, they were nevertheless an integral part of his overall design. Bartlett's doll-like people, however, seemed to be included almost haphazardly, their presence even distracting from the overall drawing.

Most collectors agree that as an artist Bartlett was clearly Roberts' inferior. He was more the journeyman—a reliable craftsman who appears to have aspired no higher than to be a reasonably faithful illustrator of the scenes he witnessed on his travels. Yet, thanks to his ability to work rapidly, his output was astonishing and the drawings he left make up perhaps the most complete visual record of the Middle East as it was during the first half of the 19th century.

John Munro specialized in 19th and 20th century English literature and has published eight books in his field.

This article appeared on pages 28-33 of the July/August 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1977 images.