david roberts (1796 –1864)


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The colonial experiences did not affect only novel writers. Visual arts took inspiration by the oriental and exotic sceneries that the new countries offered. Among the artists that portrait the cultural multitude of the British empire was David Roberts, a painter of Scottish origins.

Born at Stockbridge, Edinburgh, son of a shoemaker, Roberts studied art in the evenings while working as a decorator. His career as a painter and designer of stage scenery started in 1816 when the Pantheon Theatre in Edinburgh took him on  as a stage designer’s  assistant. In 1819, he became the scene painter at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow. There Roberts met the Scottish actress Margaret McLachlan: they married in 1820, “for pure love” and had a daughter, Christine in 1821.
Roberts’s ability and creativity made him go to London where he got as scenic designer first at the Coburg Theatre, now the Old Vic, then at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Unfortunately in London his wife became an alcoholic, and Roberts sent her back to Scotland to be cared for by friends.
In 1824 he started his journey and became commercially successful both for his landscape and for his work as theatre designer. In the 1820s, Roberts painted English and Scottish scenes and views of well-known buildings in France and the Low Countries. In 1831, he became president of the Society of British Artists and the next year he travelled in Spain and Tangiers. His sketches were elaborated into attractive and popular paintings. Back to London, J.M.W. Turner persuaded him to become a true artist. Roberts left for Egypt (1838): he wanted to make drawings  which would later become paintings and lithographs to sell to the public. And Egypt was much in vogue at that time. Roberts visited Egypt, Nubia, the Sinai, the Holy Land, Jordan and Lebanon a remarkable collection of drawings and watercolour  sketches.
On his return to Britain, Roberts worked with lithographer Louis Haghe from 1842 to 1849 to produce the copiously illustrated plates of the Sketches in the Holy Land and Syria, 1842-1849 and Egypt & Nubia series.
Qafter a journey to Italy (1851, 1853) he published his last volume of illustrations, Italy, Classical, Historical and Picturesque, in 1859. In 1841 he was elected a full member of the Royal Academy
Queen Victoria ordered him a picture of the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851.
During the last years of his life Roberts made a series of views  of London from the Thames, but he executed only six as he died suddenly of apoplexy.

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