Neoclassicism and Romanticism


(Neoclassicism, Romanticism and Art Styles in 19th century - Art Map)




A Journey in the

Holy Land






David Roberts

When, on 11 September 1838, David Roberts boarded the steamship Dante and set off for the Near East, he left behind him an unhappy marriage and a fortunate artistic career that had begun only sixteen years earlier as a scene painter in a circus. His
marriage with Margaret McLachlan, like himself a Scot, ran aground after only a few years. Roberts was left with one daughter, Christine; between one journey and another, he attempted to be a better father to her than he had been able to be husband to Margaret. His career, then newly consecrated by his election as Associate Member of the Royal Academy, was that of a "self-made man" of painting, of a self-taught artist who although he began at the very lowest step, as an apprentice house-painter, was able to demonstrate in only a very few years how a dearth of means and academic studies need not constitute an impediment to the emergence
of true talent.
David Roberts, son of a family of humble craftsmen, was born on 24 October 1796 in the Edinburgh suburb of Stockbridge. His father was a cobbler; his mother, to whom he was deeply devoted, was the first to arouse his artistic sensibilities through her
descriptions of the cathedral and convent of St. Andrew's, the city, once a bishop's see, in which she was born. And it was she who was at once the first victim and the privileged witness of the precocious artistic talent shown by her son, who covered the walls of her kitchen with chalk drawings of fantastic scenes inspired by circus posters and his curiosity about far-off places.
Unable to pay the boy's way through school, his parents decided to send him, at the conclusion of his grade-school education, as apprentice to Gavin Beugo, a house-painter and decorator who after his own manner taught Roberts the technical rudiments of draftsmanship and drawing. At home, young David practiced painting on his own, demonstrating an extraordinary capacity for depicting real-life objects; for example, he once painted a copy of a one-pound note that was difficult to distinguish from the original!
When his apprenticeship came to an end in 1815, Roberts began working on his own as a decorator, specializing in imitation marble and wood; but very early on he began alternating this activity with that of theatrical scene-painter. His debut was of the most unpretentious, in a circus with a theater tent where, when the need arose, he was also called in play small parts. In return, as he travelled with his itinerant fellows-in-work, he was granted his first opportunity to give vent to his passion for seeing new places.

During a stop in York, he visited (and painted) the city's Gothic churches, thus confirming the lasting nature of that interest in medieval architecture that had been sparked by his mother's stories in boyhood.
The unassuming house-painter, whose imagination had been fired by the first plays he had seen from the gallery of the Edinburgh Theatre, and in particular by the exotic charm of an edition of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, would have seemed thus to have realized his most ambitious dreams. But in truth this was only the beginning of what was to be a brilliant career, which in 1819 took him to the Royal Theatre of Glasgow, the following year to the Edinburgh Theatre, and in 1822 to London, first to the Drury Lane Theatre and then, in 1826, to Covent Garden. Lauded by the critics (the Times defined him a genius of unusual talent), Roberts had also begun producing canvases; he exhibited for the first time in 1824 and was a founder of the Society of British Artists, of which he became president in 1831. Artistic activity soon supplanted the scene-painter's craft, just as the latter had taken precedence over that of the decorator. But even as an artist, Roberts found ways to satisfy his innate wanderlust. He excelled as a painter of monuments, and in 1824 began a series of journeys, travelling in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, where he produced sketches and paintings that were highly appreciated in that age before photography when drawings and engravings were the tools for bringing far-off places into the homes of the public. In 1832-33 he spent eleven months touring Spain. After having visited Burgos, Madrid, Toledo, Cordova and Granada, he crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco, where he received his first taste of the oriental world and of Moorish architecture.
The journey, concluding with a lengthy sojourn in Seville, inspired a great number of oil paintings and drawings, of which many were published in the journal The Landscape Annual and many others in the volume entitled Picturesque Sketches of Spain. But above all, it assured Roberts' fame as an illustrator, and this enabled him to obtain the funding and support he needed for making his greatest dream come true: an expedition through Egypt and Palestine, which prepared with great care, weighing and uniting cultural considerations and practical necessities.
Roberts financed his travels with the profits from sales of his works on Spain, and counted heavily, for "marketing" his drawings and paintings, on the renewed interest expressed by Romantic Europe in exotic scenarios, on the re-discovery of Egyptian civilization following Champollion's unlocking of the theretofore unintelligible hieroglyphic code, on the eternal fascination exerted by the Holy Land and its monuments and that air of mystery that surrounded certain sites such as the fabulous Petra, the existence of which had been made known only very recently by an adventurous Swiss archaeologist. And for his journey Roberts was also able to count on the relative political stability of the area after Mehemet Ali, Pasha or Viceroy of Egypt, had extended his dominion to embrace the Holy Land and had initiated a process of modernization and assured conditions of greater tolerance toward Christian peoples.
Roberts sailed from Marseilles, whither he had arrived from Paris, and reached Alexandria - via Civitavecchia and Malta - on 24 September 1838. Together with a British couple, he rented a boat for three months to ascend the Nile - and was forced to literally "sink" it to free it from the rats with which it was infested. The boat, which cost the party fifteen pounds sterling per month, including the wages of the eight crew members, took the artist as far as Nubia and to the temples of Abu Simbel. There followed a long sojourn in Cairo, during which Roberts was the first Christian visitor to obtain permission to visit the mosques and to paint them. In the Egyptian capital he met John Pell and John G. Kinnear, two fellow British subjects, in whose company he decided to continue his trip to the Holy Land -or rather to Syria, as the entire area delimited by the Mediterranean Sea, the Euphrates, Asia Minor, the Arabian peninsula and Egypt was then called. The journey was conducted in conditions of extreme discomfort for a Westerner, and lasted from 7 February through 13 May 1839, when Roberts boarded ship for Alexandria, where he met Mehemet Ali.
Roberts landed in England on 21 July, with 272 drawings, a panorama of Cairo, three notebooks of sketches and a journal of his travels that his daughter Christine copied over and which is today preserved in the National Library of Scotland. In 1841, Roberts was elected Full Member of the Royal Academy. The exhibit of the watercolors and drawings he had made during his journey aroused enthusiastic commentary that pointed up the technical perfection and the skilful draftsmanship of the work: its photographic accuracy, as we would say today. The Scottish Standard, for example, in a review of the Edinburgh show, observed how in not a one of the original drawings was "a blemish or slip of the pencil... discernible. His touch seems magical." And the Spectator commented that "the artist has felt the sentiment of the scenes with the mind of a poet and depicted them with the accuracy of a draughtsman."
Immediately thereafter, on the tide of popular and critical success, commercial exploitation of the work began - although it was more to the benefit of the editor, Sir F G. Moon, than the author. Moon, strong in the knowledge that he could count on a long list of subscribers, offered Roberts the sum of three thousand pounds sterling for the publishing rights in the drawings and their adaptation as lithographs by the Belgian engraver Louis Haghe. The amount, however conspicuous, repaid the artist only in part for the expense and danger of the journey - but in exchange, publication of the work assured Roberts' fame throughout Europe. Egypt, Syria and the Holy Land, published in monthly installments from 1842 through 1849, made Roberts one of the most famous artists of the Victorian era. He was received at Court, was on excellent terms with many of the greatest artists and writers of the age, from Turner to Dickens and Thackeray, and boasted a clientele of wealthy businessmen as well as titled nobility and crowned heads. The former house-painter continued to travel, although all his later journeys were shorter and all within Europe. In 1843 he went to France, Belgium and Holland; in 1851 to northern Italy; two years later to Rome and Naples; and later again to Belgium and Paris. When he died, on 25 November 1864, the fame of this slow-speaking Scotsman with such a sure hand with a pencil, who generously aided novice artists and whom the Times considered "the best architectural painter that our country has yet produced," was still intact. The end of the Victorian era condemned Roberts, like many other protagonists of that era, to temporary oblivion. But today his paintings are again very much sought-after and his drawings have preserved intact the charm of a lost world, in which a journey through the Orient was still an adventure and such marvels as the temples of the Valley of Kings or the Holy Sepulchre were known to the public at large only through the mediation of art.

Enrico Nistri



General View of Suez ...

David Roberts set out from Cairo for the Holy Land on 7 February 1839, with a, small caravan including servants in Arabian and Turkish dress, an armed escort oj Bedouins and twenty-one camels which transported provisions and baggage as well as tents for overnight encampments. With Roberts travelled two Englishmen, John Pell and John G. Kinnear, who two years later dedicated his own book of memoirs, Cairo, Petra and Damascus, to Roberts.
Guiding the party was Hanafi Ishmael Effendi (portrayed on the Jrontispiece), an Egyptian converted to Christianity during his stays in England, who spoke English fluently and with whom Roberts had become friends while in Cairo.
 The first stop on their itinerary was the city of Suez, at the extreme southern tip of the isthmus of the same name, which had at the time yet to be cut through by Ferdinand Ijesseps to place the Mediterranean in communication with the Red Sea.



... and a Scene on the Quay of Suez

The city of Suez, founded in the 15th century, had already gained considerable commercial importance as a stop-over for sailings to India and the East Indies. In his travel journal, Roberts described Suez as "a wretched place" and, even though he found the bazaars "pwtiiresque", chose to depict in one of his drawings the quays of the port, somnolent by day but greatly animated by the arrival of the Bombay steamer during the night.



Ayn Mousa. The Wells of Moses

As tradition has it, the Ayn Mousa springs were made to appear by Moses in order to quench the thirst of the Israelites after their miraculous passage of the Red Sea. Yet today, the visitor coming from Suez Jollows a route analogous to that over which the Prophet led the Jewish people. Even though nearby there has since arisen Ras as-Suder, a small urban agglomerate established after oil was discovered in the area, the oasis itself has changed little since Roberts' arrival there on 12 February 1839. While the caravan halted for the mid-day meal, the artist counted fifteen springs "surrounded by a few stunted palm trees71 and took time to paint a scene of the resting caravan.



An Ancient Egyptian Temple, on Gebel Garaba

At the end of a fatiguing climb on foot up a steep slope, Roberts and his travelling companions reached the ruins of Gebel Garaba, discovered by Niehbur in 1761. At the time, the ruins were thought by some to be the remains of a cemetery; by others, of a temple. Roberts and his fellow traveller Kinnear gave credit to the latter hypothesis, which has since been proved to be correct. The majority of archaeologists believe Gebel Garaba to be a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Hathor, and due to its elevated position a place oj pilgrimage. Hathor was known as "the Mistress of the Turquoise", a stone extracted in the area since the dawn of history.



Approach to Mount Sinai

The crossing of the Sinai Desert represented an adventure of no slight account
for three European travellers who were completely ignorant of the desert routes
and of the dangers they might encounter along the way. An armed escort of
local Bedouins, like that shown in this drawing, was indispensible; one might
say the necessary premise for a successful journey. Robert's journal entry dated
15 February notes with satisfaction: "We are now in the midst of the wilderness
of Sinai ... we have now been nine days travelling this waste, and with the
exception of meeting one or two Arabs of the same tribe, ... we seem as if cut off
from the world ... I am every day more delighted with the manly intelligent
countenance of our Bedowms."



Convent of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai

The Convent of Sainl Catherine was built in the sixth century by Emperor Justinian. The budding, rising alongside the ancient hermits' tower and, surrounded by walls, is considered to be the oldest continually-inhabited construction in the world. Tradition has it that the convent was built on the site of the Burning Bush seen by Moses; however that may be, it stands at the feet of two mountains rich in sacred lore: Gehe.l Musa and, Gebel Katerin. According to the Bible, it was the former mount that Moses ascended to receive the Ten Commandments; a, holy legend dating to the eighth century narrates that the latter was the site of the deposition of the corpse of Saint Catherine after her martyrdom under Emperor Maxentius. The monastery library preserves rare manuscripts, among which the Codex Sinaiticus, believed to he the oldest translation of the Bible.



Principal Court of the Convent of Saint Catherine

Roberts, who in his journal described the convent as "a large square enclosure, the walls (of which) with flanking towers are built of hewn granite", was touched by the brotherly welcome he received from "our kind friends the monks of St. Catherine." On February
22, he noted in his journal how "it would be impossible to speak too highly of the attention and kindness with which we have been treated during our stay, particularly by the superior."
Little has changed in this monastic complex since the time of Roberts' journey: the most striking addition is the bell-tower, built in 1871.





Ascent to the Summit of Mount Sinai

The ascent of Mount Sinai was in olden times a compulsory penance for pilgrims, who in order to obtain forgiveness for their sins climbed the three thousand steps leading to the summit either on foot or on their knees, according to the gravity of their transgressions and the strength of their faith.
Although he took note of both the Hebrew and the Muslim traditions regarding the site, Roberts tackled the climb with the spirit of a layman. It took him about two hours; at the end of his labors, his strongest impression was of the beauty of the panorama that from the peak spread out below him. On 20 February he wrote in his journal, "Today we ascended to the summit of Sinai ... Near the top are two small chapels, one covers the cave inhere Elijah was fed by the ravens and the other is dedicated to Elias and on the summit are two others; one where Moses received the tables of the law and the other belongs to the Mahomedans; immediately under it is pointed out the footmark of the camel which carried him from Mount Ararat to Mecca. The view from the top is the most sublime that can be imagined."



The Rock of Moses ...

"Made a drawing of the rock of Moses said to be the same from which the waters gushed forth to the thirsty multitude," wrote Roberts in his journal for 22 February: The rock of Moses is a huge mass of red granite fifteen feet long, ten feet wide and twelve feet in height that is still today venerated by Christian pilgrims and Muslims alike.


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