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Home / Great Artists / R / David Roberts / Biography
Biography David Roberts

David Roberts Biography


1796-1864

Scottish Orientalist Painter

David Roberts (October 24, 1796 - November 25, 1864), Scottish painter, was born at Stockbridge, Edinburgh. He is especially known for a prolific series of detailed prints of Egypt and the Near East produced during the 1840s from sketches made during long tours of the region (1838-1840). This work, and his large oil paintings of similar subjects, made him a prominent Orientalist painter. He was elected as a Royal Academician in 1841.

Early life
At the age of 10, Roberts was apprenticed by his father, a shoemaker, for seven years to a house painter and decorator named Gavin Beugo. During this time he studied art in the evenings. His first paid job came in 1815, when he moved to Perth for a year to work as a decorator.

In 1816, he was taken on as a stage designer's assistant at the Pantheon Theatre in Edinburgh, the beginning of his career as a painter and designer of stage scenery. In 1819, he became the scene painter at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow. There, Roberts met the Scottish actress Margaret McLachlan, who was rumoured to be the illegitimate daughter of a Highland gypsy girl and a clan chief. They married in 1820, "for pure love". Although the marriage did not last long, it produced Roberts' only daughter, Christine, who was born 1821.

Although he was making a living from scene painting, it was around this time that Roberts began to seriously produce oil paintings. In 1820, he became friends with the artist Clarkson Stanfield, then painting at the Pantheon in Edinburgh. In 1821, he had three paintings (Views of Melrose and Dryburgh Abbeys) accepted by the Fine Arts Institution of Edinburgh, of which two sold. At Stanfield's suggestion he also sent three pictures to the 1822 Exhibition of Works by Living Artists, held in Edinburgh.

Move to London
In 1822 Roberts was offered a job as a scenic designer and stage painter by the Coburg Theatre (now the Old Vic) in London. He sailed from Leith with his wife and the six-month-old Christine. The young family settled in London and after a while at the Coburg Theatre, Roberts moved to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane to create dioramas and panoramas with Stanfield.

A miniature by Roberts from this time shows Margaret as a delicate woman with blonde ringlets, holding the smiling three-year-old Christine. But Roberts' family life was not as idyllic as this picture suggests: Margaret had become an alcoholic, and eventually, in 1831, Roberts sent her back to Scotland to be cared for by friends. Roberts may have burned some letters from this period in shame at his wife's drinking problem, but he was unusually frank in a letter to a friend, David Ramsay Hay. Roberts and Hay had been an apprentices together, and Hay had been seeing a mistress since his own wife had started drinking.

"If you do not know our cases are almost parallel. Yours is not as bad as mine, having some consolation. The state of my nerves is such I can scarcely write. But thank God she leaves tomorrow - I hope for ever."

In 1824 he exhibited at the British Institution another view of Dryburgh Abbey, and sent two works to the first exhibition of the newly formed Society of British Artists. In the autumn of 1824 he visited Normandy, and paintings based on this trip began to lay the foundation of his reputation, one of them, a view of Rouen Cathedral, selling for 80 guineas.

While building his reputation as a fine artist, Roberts had also been commercially successful with his stage work. Commissions from Covent Garden included the sets for the London premiere of Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) in 1827, scenery for a pantomime depicting the naval victory of Navarino, and two panoramas executed jointly by him and Stanfield.

By 1829 he was working full-time as a fine artist. That year, he exhibited the Departure of the Israelites from Egypt, in which his style first became apparent. In 1831 he was elected president of the Society of British Artists. And in 1832 he traveled in Spain and Tangiers, returning at the end of 1833 with a supply of effective sketches, elaborated into attractive and popular paintings. His Interior of Seville Cathedral was exhibited in the British Institution in 1834, and sold for £300; and he executed a fine series of Spanish illustrations for the Landscape Annual of 1836, while in 1837 a selection of his Picturesque Sketches in Spain was reproduced by lithography.

Travel to Egypt and Holy Land
It was J.M.W. Turner, who managed to persuade him to abandon scene painting and devote himself to becoming a true artist. Set sail for Egypt on 31 August 1838 with the intention of producing drawings that he could later use as the basis for the paintings and lithographs to sell to the public. Egypt was very much in vogue at this time, and travellers, collectors and lovers of antiquities were very keen to buy works depicting the great monuments of ancient Egypt or inspired by the East.

Roberts arrived in Egypt in 1838, a few years after Owen Jones. He 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.

He was received by Muhammad Ali Pasha in Alexandria on 16 May 1839, shortly before his return to Britain. He later reproduced this scene (apparently from memory) in Volume 3 of Egypt & Nubia.

Return to Britain
Upon his return to Edinburgh, his portrait was painted in 1840 by fellow-artist Robert Scott Lauder. This portrait was purchased in 1980 by the National Gallery of Scotland.

On his return to Britain he worked with lithographer Louis Haghe from 1842 to 1849 to produce the lavishly illustrated plates of the Sketches in the Holy Land and Syria, 1842-1849 and Egypt & Nubia series. These were funded by advance subscriptions solicited directly by Roberts. 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.

He was feted by Scottish society, such as being the guest of honour at a dinner on October 19, 1842, at which Lord Cockburn presided.

Later life
In 1851, and again in 1853, Roberts visited Italy, painting the Ducal Palace, Venice, bought by Lord Londesborough, the Interior of the Basilica of St Peters, Rome, Christmas Day, 1853, and Rome from the Convent of St Onofrio, presented to the Royal Scottish Academy.

His last volume of illustrations, Italy, Classical, Historical and Picturesque, was published in 1859. He also executed, by command of Queen Victoria, a picture of the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851. In. 1839 he was elected an associate and in 1841 a full member of the Royal Academy; and in 1858 he was presented with the freedom of the city of Edinburgh. The last years of his life were occupied with a series of views of London from the Thames. He had executed six of these, and was at work upon a picture of St Paul's Cathedral, when he died suddenly of apoplexy.