Back in 1989 in Cairo, Egypt, I started to collect David Roberts work. At the time I did not know much about Roberts and I liked what I saw because it was an historical recollection of what Egypt was like as an old Kingdom then under Ottoman rule and as seen by tourists on the Grand Tour.
David Roberts was a Scottish painter, born in Stockbridge which is part of the city of Edinburgh, Scotland in 1796 and died in London in 1864. Stockbridge is an elegant neighbourhood filled with Georgian and Victorian terraced houses.
Roberts is especially known for The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt, and Nubia, a prolific series of detailed lithograph prints of Egypt and the Near East that he produced from sketches he made during long sojourn in the region.
Roberts was a member of the Royal Academy.
Apprenticed for seven years to be a house painter and decorator. During this time he studied art in the evenings. After his apprenticeship was complete, Roberts’s first paid job came in the summer of 1815, when he moved to Perth to serve as foreman for the redecoration of Scone Palace, where Scottish Kings were crowned until 1296.
His next job was to paint scenery for James Bannister’s circus on North College Street. This was the beginning of his career as a painter and designer of stage scenery.
In 1822 the Coburg Theatre, now the Old Vic in London, offered Roberts a job as a scenic designer and stage painter. He sailed from Leith with his wife Margaret and their six-month-old daughter Christine and settled in London. After working for a while at the Coburg Theatre, Roberts moved to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane to create dioramas and panoramas.
While he built his reputation as a fine artist, Roberts’s stage work had also been commercially successful. Commissions from Covent garden for opera stage sets came regularly.
The painter J.M. William Turner persuaded Roberts to abandon scene painting and devote himself to becoming a full-time artist. Roberts set sail for Egypt on 31 August 1838. His intent was to produce drawings that he could later use as the basis for the paintings and lithographs to sell to the public. Egypt was much in vogue at this time, and travellers, collectors and lovers of antiquities were keen to buy works inspired by the East or depicting the great monuments of ancient Egypt.
Roberts made a long tour in Egypt, Nubia, the Sinai, the Holy Land, Jordan and Lebanon. Throughout, he produced a vast collection of drawings and watercolour sketches.
Muhammad Ali Pasha received Roberts in Alexandria on 16 May 1839, shortly before his return to the UK.
The scenery and monuments of Egypt and Holy Land were fashionable but had hitherto been hardly touched by British artists, and so Roberts quickly accumulated 400 subscription commitments, with Queen Victoria being subscriber No. 1. Her complete set is still in the Royal Collection. The timing of publication just before photographs of the sites became available proved fortuitous.
I bought my first Roberts in an old shop just off Tahrir Square in Cairo and near J. Groppi pastry shop on Talat Harb Sq.. The first one, Plate 238 entitled Cairo from the Gate of the Citizenib, looking towards the desert of Suez. Published in London 1 Dec 1856 by Day & Son, 17 Gate Street, London. I did learn that Roberts did give some fancy names to sites when he was not sure what the actual name was as in this case it is the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque and gate. Also because he belonged to the Orientalist school of painters, romanticize views to make them more attractive to his European viewers and clients. Many of his paintings and lithographs were made as advertisement to promote the Grand Tour to wealthy people who could travel in style for 3 months to a year. The London Illustrated News used a lot of his work to promote areas of the British Empire one could safely visit.
When I was posted to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan I started to look for lithographs of the Holy Land to add to my collection. One is entitled Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olives. By today’s standard it would be difficult to see this view given that old Jerusalem is surrounded not by modern suburbs.
From Jordan, I have views of Petra and of the roman city of Jerash. In all 10 lithographs. It is interesting to see them and examine them, so you get a view of the world some 180 years ago and how it appeared to people like Roberts.