Scottish artist David Roberts is considered one of the finest painters of the 19th century for his grand, sweeping scenes, often including great monuments of architecture. At a time when ‘orientalism’ was popular amongst both the public and the art world, his images of the Middle East became particularly significant.
Roberts was born in Edinburgh, the son of a shoemaker. His family were not very well off, and noticing his son’s proclivity for painting, Roberts’ father procured for him an apprenticeship with a house painter, Gavin Beugo. This, his father hoped, would be Roberts’ path out of poverty.
The house painting apprenticeship was very successful for Roberts, and soon enough it led to an interest in working as a scene painter in the theatre. Roberts became employed by a number of companies and houses across Scotland, including in Carlisle and Glasgow. He was also offered the opportunity to travel with a circus across England. In Roberts’ own words, this ‘gave me the opportunity of seeing England, and of painting pictures on a large scale.’ His time in the circus would also allow him to practise capturing the scenes set out before him quickly, obtaining an impression of the scope, the space, and the people.
When not completing his theatre work, Roberts would also practise smaller-scale canvas paintings. Whilst working at the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh, Roberts befriended fellow painter Clarkson Frederick Stanfield (1793-1867), who encouraged him to begin exhibiting these works. Roberts’ first exhibited works were shown at the Edinburgh Fine Arts Institution in 1822.
Soon after this time, Roberts moved to London. Here he continued to work in the theatre industry, finding steady employment with the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the theatres in the Covent Garden district. He did, however, continue to exhibit, touting the interests of the grand institutions such as the Royal Academy and the British Institution. He would also become a founding member of the Society of British Artists, eventually becoming president in 1831.
Paintings created from a trip to France in 1824 proved the propelling force in Roberts’ reputation as a fine arts painter. He displayed scenes of the grand, gothic churches and cathedrals of Rouen and Dieppe. These are executed with a careful hand, demonstrating an understanding of perspective and the depiction of architecture. They are also fantastic examples of Roberts’ ability to capture vast scenes without losing specificity. The technicolour glory of a stained-glass window, tucked behind the altar, is not lost. Neither are the figures praying on the ground, nor the effect of the bright light streaming in through the large window across the choir.
In Roberts’ works, harmony rules to conjure scenes with great feeling and vitality. There is so much happening, yet nothing feels lost, and the scenes do not feel overcrowded. The eye delights to span across them and take in every detail. They are laden with the character of his skilled hand and proved very popular both amongst the public and the leaders of the art world alike.
From the 1830s onwards, and at the encouragement of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), Roberts left the theatre world behind and focussed on his fine art pieces full-time. This allowed him to travel further afield.
He began with a trip to Spain. Here he would sketch various scenes across its cities and towns, which he would later adapt into finished oil paintings. He also completed a number of illustrations from this trip which would be published in a volume titled ‘Roberts’ Picturesque Sketches in Spain.’ For this volume, Roberts worked with printer John Murray to reproduce his images on a large scale using the process of lithography. This allowed for the fine detail of Roberts’ work to be captured across each volume.
Lithography would prove a successful means through which Roberts’ works could be disseminated and his reputation elevated. After the success of his Spanish illustrations, Roberts decided that another trip would offer the British public an artistic journey to destinations even further afield. This time, Roberts decided to venture to the Middle East.
Interest across the Western world in the Middle East had been growing throughout the 19th century since the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798. This cultivated a curiosity in the natural, cultural, and religious differences struck between the West and the East. Such an influence seeped into art, which then became a key tool for communicating to people back home the differences between their lands. These works became known as ‘orientalist’ art.
It would be remiss not to mention that some depictions, particularly earlier works, were shaped by imperialism and prejudices. As the 19th century progressed, some works became depictions of fantasy more than reality, perpetuating myths of life in the Middle East, some of which had negative connotations.
Whilst not immune to such influences, Roberts’ approach to his travels and his work was carefully managed and detail-oriented. From the diaries that remain from his trip, it is shown that Roberts took time to understand and respect the culture and the customs in the different places to which he travelled. He became mortified on an occasion where he inadvertently ‘contaminated’ a piece of ‘sacred drapery’ by touching it.
As with his views of Spain and France, Roberts intended to capture the specificity and the glory of the scenes laid out before him in an artistically pleasing manner. However, this did not, therefore, exclude realism. Whilst his finished works are once more adapted from sketches, each piece which completes his compositional puzzles is derived from reality.
Once again, Roberts is extremely successful in executing works with fine detail and character. He contrasts the grand structures of the Ancient Egyptians to the humans made miniature by their majesty. An effective understanding of colour and light adds atmosphere which only emphasises the grandeur, both natural and man-made. Upon seeing the Pyramids, Roberts would admit in his diary that he could not ‘express my feelings on seeing these vast monuments.’ Despite his emotional speechlessness, artistically Roberts was able to capture the grand scale of these man-made wonders with sophisticated effectiveness, demonstrating once more his canny hand for architecture.
Finally returning to London, Roberts’ sketches were once again developed into both paintings and illustrations. His paintings were exhibited to great acclaim. Indeed, at this point, Roberts had risen to the artistic ranks to become a member of the Royal Academy.
His illustrations were once more adapted into lithographic prints, this time by renowned lithographer Louis Haghe (1806-1885). These Roberts published over the course of seven years to his subscribers, the list of which included the likes of Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, and Mehemet Ali, to name a few.
Roberts’ works were seen as the definitive depictions of life in Egypt and the Middle East. With his broad, awe-summoning views, coupled with a detail which erases no specificity and allows character to seep into every corner of his works, they allowed glimpses of faraway lands to those who might never have seen them.
In his later life, Roberts continued to travel and produced another selection of views, this time of Italy. His renown had grown so great he was appointed to the Royal Commission of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was headed by Prince Albert. In 1858, he received the freedom of the city of Edinburgh.
Roberts died suddenly in 1864, collapsing whilst walking down Berners Street in London. He had been working on a project to document various scenes of London from the Thames and was returning from a session sketching St Paul’s Cathedral. Up until the last, he was working on his art.
David Roberts was an artist of supreme skill who was able to capitalise on the public interest in travels to places far and wide. His timing seems fortuitous, for it would only be a short time later that photography would come to reign supreme, and his works might have seemed redundant. Nonetheless, he is a fascinating example of an ‘oriental’ artist. His travel diaries which remain also offer a fascinating insight into the life of an artist in the 19th century.
Born in Stockbridge, Edinburgh, Scotland.
Became a scene painter at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, Scotland.
Married Margaret McLachlan.
Exhibited at the Edinburgh Fine Arts Institution. Exhibited at the Exhibition of Living Artists, Edinburgh. Moved to London.
Became a member of the Society of British Artists. Travelled to Rouen and Dieppe, France.
Exhibited frequently at the British Institution.
Exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy.
Travelled to Paris, France.
Elected president of the Society of British Artists.
Travelled to Spain.
Travelled to Egypt, Jerusalem, Baalbek, and Syria.
Became an associate member of the Royal Academy.
Elected a member of the Royal Academy.
Appointed Commissioner for the Great Exhibition by Prince Albert. Travelled to Italy.
Travelled to Italy.
Presented with the freedom of the city of Edinburgh, Scotland.
Died in London, Britain. Buried in West Norwood Cemetery, London, Britain.