David Roberts Biography and Paintings

David Roberts Biography and Paintings

David Roberts (1796 - 1864)

  David Roberts, whose speciality was architectural and topographical paintings, was one of the first independent artists to visit the Near East. His journey, made amid conditions of discomfort, diffculty and danger, brought him fame and established him as one of the best-known painters of his day, both in Britain and on the Continent. Child of a humble family (his father was a shoemaker), Roberts was apprenticed for seven years to a house-painter in Edinburgh before earning his living as a scene-painter in the Scottish theatre. In 1822, he moved to London, working at Drury Lane and later at Covent Garden, and designing panoramas and dioramas. He found time, however, to paint for himself, and exhibited for the first time with the Society of British Artists in 1824. Once his work began to sell, he left the theatre forever, except for designing scenery for several of Charles Dickens's productions. At the end of 1832, Roberts went to Spain, attracted by the fact that this was a country whose architecture had so far been neglected by British painters. By the following spring, he was in Tangiers and Tetuan. Not only did his album of lithographic views of Spain make his reputation, but his adventures in Morocco whetted his appetite for further Eastern travel.

At this time, scholarly concern for the classical world was gradually being superseded by a growing interest in the ancient cultures of the Middle East, which were relevant to biblical history, and therefore of great interest to the Victorians. On the other hand, Islamic architecture, although it was beginning to attract attention in Europe, was still little known. It had long been Roberts's ambition to undertake this important and hazardous journey, and in 1838, he at last sailed for Alexandria. He spent several months sketching, writing letters and diaries, and exploring Upper Egypt and Nubia. The degree of desolation and solitude of these Egyptian ruins deeply impressed him, and, although feeling that he had perhaps not done them justice, he was immensely successful in communicating his sense of awe, particularly when he chose a low viewpoint to emphasize the superhuman scale of his subjects. The small groups of figures in the foreground only help to set off the grandeur of the monuments. In February 1839, he left for Sinai, Petra, Jaffa, Jerusalem (recently in quarantine during an outbreak of the plague), Nazareth, St. John of Acre, Tyre and Sidon, then on to Lebanon and Baalbek. Fever prevented him from including Damascus and Palmyra.

After eleven months' absence, Roberts returned home with hundreds of drawings and sketches. Like those of most topographical artists, these were drawn rapidly and decisively, but with suffcient detail to be used for prints or studio pictures. In addition, he possessed the rare gift of being able to paint from studies made many years earlier. From 1842 to 1849, his coloured prints, lithographed by Louis Haghe, were published in six volumes entitled Views in the Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia. These albums, many of which have been wantonly broken up, made his fortune, being the first records of the Holy Land to be presented to the British public. Roberts's experience as a theatre designer helped him to respond emotionally to the massive and dramatic ruins he had seen. He had a great talent for conveying the height and proportions of a building, achieving effects that can only be equalled in photography by using a wideangled lens. This, and his instinct for balanced compositions with dramatic impact, make his watercolours and pencil and wash sketches of exceptional interest. He received many commissions for oil paintings based on his studies, but these often lack the freshness of his first impressions dashed off on the spot.

Roberts's style of travel in the Near East had been magnificent, whether sailing up the Nile in a hired boat with a crew of eight, or crossing the desert in Arab costume, accompanied by a caravan of twenty-one   camels and as many servants and Bedouins. Nothing quite ever matched up to this experience, and he never again ventured so far afield, confining his travels to Italy, France and Belgium, with visits to Scotland. Roberts, who was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy in 1839 and became an Academician in 1841, virtually abandoned Orientalist subjects after the 1840s.

Literature: J. Ballantine, The Life of David Roberts, R.A., Edinburgh, 1866; D. and F. Irwin, Scottish painters at home and abroad 1700-1900, London, 1975; H. Guiterman, David Roberts, R.A., London, 1978.


Labels: famous artists biography
August 24, 2020
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