David Roberts, Scottish painter, was born in Stockbridge, (then near Edinburgh, now one of its residential suburbs) on October 24th, 1796. His parents were poor, his father being a shoe maker. From an early age, Roberts displayed a distinct artistic talent. Therefore, on the advice of the director of the Trustees Academy at Edinburgh, the young boy (age 10) was apprenticed to a house-painter. This eventually involved decorative and mural-like work and lasted approximately seven years. It was hard work but would provide the future artist with a practical knowledge of how to paint in various mediums. In fact, nearly everything Roberts - never a formally schooled artist - would need later concerning the technical aspect of his profession he would learn during this apprenticeship.
In 1816, just shy of 20, the young David Roberts joined a troupe of traveling pantomimists (called the Pantheon) as a theatrical backdrop painter, to the dismay of both parents. But as the artist later wrote, “To travel in company with strolling players...might not be very respectable, but it gave me an opportunity of seeing England, and of painting pictures on a large scale.” It also gave Roberts experience and skill in what he termed “aerial perspective,” blending objects together without a hard and definite line. In addition he learned to make any canvas resemble wood or marble. Moreover, and this would particularly come in handy later on, he learned to paint rapidly yet accurately.
With the traveling group’s demise, Roberts divided his time painting theatrical scenery and house decoration, his original line of training. With a brighter future in mind, he also spent his evenings painting in oils, perfecting and amalgamating his various skills and techniques. Eventually he landed a position as principal painter at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, following that by employment, in 1820-21, at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh.
It was during this time (in 1820) that he married a young Scottish actress. The marriage was not a happy one and shortly after their only child Christine was born, the marriage was dissolved. Roberts’s chief biographer, James Ballantine, cites his wife’s drinking as the reason for the failed marriage. But since Ballantine was a good personal friend of the artist, the reason for her drinking might just as well have been Roberts himself. He never remarried nor, as far as we know, had any intimate female liasons. He always remained, however, close to his daughter.
Roberts was obviously highly motivated and ambitious (in addition to possessing a formidable talent). He knew Roberts was obviously highly motivated and ambitious (in addition to possessing a formidable talent). He knew that success would come only through hard work and tremendous discipline. Luckily he was able to combine both for much of the remainder of his life. In 1823, aged 26, he moved permanently to London where he worked for the Drury Lane Theatre. In 1824, he exhibited his first picture for the British Institution, a highly coveted gallery featuring only the finest works, in 1824. He would also become a founding member of the new Society of British Artists.
The year 1824 was an important one in David’s life. That year he made his first trip to Europe, sketching many of the monuments and cathedrals with great, almost photographic precision. When he returned, he turned these sketches into his first real “romantic travel” paintings, then in great vogue. Some were exhibited and sold in ever-increasing prices. Soon he had his first patron, Lord Northwick; his work was reviewed (favorably) in The Times. Yet he was still obliged to continue painting stage scenery, albeit now at the prestigious Covent Garden (his seventeen scenes for their production of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio in 1826 created a sensation and made his name nationally known). In 1827, the newly-founded Royal Scottish Academy exhibited his paintings and in 1830 he was elected president of the Society of British Artists. Saving his money (and on the advice of a friend and fellow Scot artist David Wilkie), Roberts set out for Spain in 1832, then a relatively little-known country to most Britons.
Even before his trip, and certainly after it, Roberts had established a reputation as an important architectural artist. If not celebrated, he was on the verge of earning his living now on commissions alone, any artist’s dream. The trip took him not only to Spain but Portugal and Morocco. After visiting Burgos, Madrid, Toledo, Segovia, Cordova, Granada, Malaga, Gibraltar, Cadiz and Seville, he settled down in Spain for several months, working up some of his sketches in oil. In all, he would depart with more than 200 sketches of both people and places, although confessing in a letter home, “I begin to doubt whether I shall be able to paint half of them.” On his return from Spain, in 1833, several of his sketches were published by Jennings in three issues of "The Landscape Annual."
In addition, 25 of the Spanish sketches were lithographed and issued in a volume called Picturesque Sketches from Spain published in 1837 by John Murray. (This publication brought him into contact with the Belgium-born artist and lithographer Louis Haghe who would figure so prominently in the success of his future Egypt and Holy Land series.)
Cairo, painting by David Roberts
W h o w a s D a v i d R o b e r t s ?
Edinburgh from the Calton Hill 18xx -- painting by David Roberts
These and the following example show how closely the lithographer Haghe followed Roberts's original sketches. Each print often required more than one stone (all done in reverse to the original) to capture different tones, e.g. black, white, ochre, and pink or tan. The registration (i.e. the placement of the sheet of paper to each successive stone) had to remain perfect throughout as the slightest variation would permanently “blur” the image, rendering it unacceptable. The final result would then (in the deluxe edition) be hand-coloured, as shown here.
Cairo, lithograph by Louis Haghe
Metwalys, painting by David Roberts
Metwalys, lithograph by Louis Haghe