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29 June 2022

David Roberts: Victorian visions of the Holy Land

The Scottish artist’s exotic renderings of Egypt and the Near East imprinted biblical landscapes on the 19th-century imagination.

By Michael Prodger

When Napoleon landed at Alexandria on 1 July 1798 he was accompanied not just by the troops charged with capturing Egypt and Syria from the Ottoman Turks but also by a group of scientists and artists whose job was to record the sights and artefacts of the fabled lands. One of those “lapdogs”, as the soldiers called them, was the artist-diplomat Vivant Denon who in 1802 published, in two spectacular pillustrated volumes, his Voyage dans la basse et la haute Egypte (“Journey in Lower and Upper Egypt”). It would prove to be one of the most influential books of the 19th century.

Denon’s Voyage sparked Egyptomania, a fad for all things Egyptian that would find expression in architecture, interior decoration, art and literature – especially in Britain and France – and which intensified when Egyptian antiquities began to appear in European museums. “Ozymandias” (1818), Shelley’s celebrated poem on the transience of temporal power, was written in anticipation of the arrival in the British Museum of a giant, head-and-torso statue of Ramesses II: Ozymandias was the pharaoh’s Greek name.

[See also: The Brazilian landscapes of Frans Post capture the dismal dawn of the colonial age]

Among the artists lured by the “antique lands” was the Scottish painter David Roberts (1796-1864). He also saw that Egyptomania had created a market eager for anything to do with the Near East and set out to satisfy it. Between 1838 and 1840 he travelled extensively throughout the region, making innumerable sketches that he worked up for illustrations for what became one of the most expensive publishing projects of the time. The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt, and Nubia appeared between 1842 and 1849 in two sets amounting to six volumes, funded by some 400 subscribers, with Queen Victoria as subscriber number one, and Charles Dickens and Tsar Nicholas I among the others. In all, the work contained some 250 lithographs after Roberts’ drawings, made by the Belgian Louis Haghe and then hand coloured, with historical and descriptive texts by William Brockedon and George Croly.

Where Vivant Denon’s illustrations had been in the main documentary and descriptive, Roberts’ images showed a romanticised and picturesque vision of the landscape and sights of the biblical and pharaonic lands – all sweeping vistas, soft lighting, exaggerated scale and agreeably lounging tribesmen and burnoused locals. John Ruskin, who never travelled to the region, nevertheless felt the pictures represented a “true portraiture of scenes of historical and religious interest. They are faithful and laborious beyond any outlines from nature I have ever seen.” Their artfulness and careful evocativeness made them highly influential; this was the Holy Land of a generation’s imaginings.

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If many of the illustrations have the appearance of stage sets, it is no accident. Roberts was born in the Edinburgh suburb of Stockbridge to a shoemaker father, and his first job was as a house-painter and decorator. It was a tough apprenticeship and Roberts later recalled on telling his parents “how I had been kicked and cuffed, the only response I got to my complaint was, ‘Respect and obey your master.’”

He then became a scene painter for a travelling circus and toured the north of England, sometimes appearing in the ring as a foil to the clowns. He later moved on to the theatre, painting backdrops after the evening performance ended, and in 1819 he was taken on by the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh. While there he met the future marine artist Clarkson Stanfield and started to exhibit independent oil paintings in Edinburgh.

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In 1822, both men moved to London and eventually became diorama and panorama painters at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Throughout the 1820s Roberts doubled as both a theatrical painter and fine artist – he not only created the 17 sets for the London premiere of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio but showed his pictures with various London exhibiting societies, including, in 1826, the Royal Academy for the first time.

Roberts’ personal life, however, was rather less auspicious: his wife, Margaret, supposedly the illegitimate daughter of a Gypsy and a Highland clan chief, developed an addiction to alcohol, and in a letter to a sympathetic friend Roberts admitted the depths of his despondency: “The state of my nerves is such I can scarcely write. But thank God she leaves tomorrow – I hope for ever.” And, indeed, he sent her back to Scotland and out of his life, although he kept and cherished their daughter Christine.

[See also: Algernon Newton: rediscovering British art’s “Canaletto of the canals”]

Roberts’ early independent works were views of English and Scottish monuments and towns, but in 1824 he made the first of the foreign trips that were to become the bedrock of his career. The paintings he made after a tour of Normandy, and those subsequently painted after visiting Spain and Morocco, not only proved popular with collectors but effected an entrée into the London art world.

It was JMW Turner who supposedly encouraged him to give up scene painting, and it was the watercolours Roberts painted from sketches by other artists for TH Horne’s Landscape Illustrations of the Bible (1836) that put the Near East firmly in his mind. In September 1838, following in Napoleon’s footsteps, he landed in Alexandria and, wearing Ottoman costume and with a laissez-passer from the British Consul, started his travels.

At the pyramids he was, “Not much struck with the size of the great one till I began the ascent, which is no joke,” although he admitted that, “I cannot express my feelings on seeing these vast monuments.” He hired boats to take him down the Nile – one of which had to be sunk to rid it of rats – saw crocodiles up close, including a creature so big “his body seemed equal in circumference to an ox. My servant told me he had lately eaten a man belonging to the adjoining village, and certainly he was big enough to have eaten a donkey.” He wrote to his daughter: “I have rarely enjoyed better health; and with the exception of swarms of mosquitoes, fleas, bugs, lizards, etc, from whom I suffered martyrdom, running over me all night, eating my victuals, and even nibbling my straw-hat.”

This picture shows the fruits of his martyrdom. It is dated 1848 and inscribed “Statues of Memnon at Thebes, during the Inundation”, and is one of Hage’s lithographs for the Egypt and Nubia volumes of his great project: Denon had shown the same pair of enormous seated figures in his own book. The statues, known as the Colossi of Memnon, date from 1350 BC and stand at the entrance to the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III and depict the pharaoh himself.

Roberts has shown them from behind, with some drinking cattle that could have stepped out of a Turner watercolour and an over-large group of local fishermen. The sunset is elegiac and symbolic: Roberts wrote of how Egypt’s monuments left him, like “Ozymandias”, “overcome by melancholy reflections on the mutability of all human greatness, and the perishable nature of even the most enduring works of human genius”. It is a scene that combines archaeology and ambience to induce reflection: just as the sun set on Amenhotep’s empire, so it will one day set on Britain’s too.

By the time it set on Roberts himself, struck down by “apoplexy” – a stoke – in the street, he was a lauded figure in the Victorian art world, a Royal Academician and a commissioner for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The course his life had taken had nevertheless seemed to him preordained. As a child he recalled reading a book on fortune-telling “and as I had a mole on my leg, the book said it indicated that I was destined to be a great traveller. This pleased me much, and after the wandering life I have led I have sometimes thought that mole might have had something to do with it.”

[See also: Walter Sickert’s fascination with the mundane, gaudy and sordid]

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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness