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Lot 74: David Roberts, R.A (Scottish, 1796-1864)

Orientalist Art

by Christie's

April 19, 2006

New York, NY, USA

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Description: Ruins of the Great Temple at Karnak, in Upper Egypt, looking towards the Lybyan chain of hills, called Baban el Malouk (the gate of Kings) in which are the excavated tombs of the Kings of Thebes - Sunset.
signed and dated 'David Roberts.R.A. 1845' (lower center)
oil on canvas
57 x 93 in. (144.8 x 237 cm.)
Painted in 1845

by Caroline Williams

'If Luxor struck me with its magniture, what shall I say of Karnac? Its grandeur cannot be imagined. Were I to write what I think it would be mere rhapsody. It is so far beyond every thing I have ever seen that I can draw no comparison.' - David Roberts, October 23, 1839.

David Roberts, a member of the Royal Academy, was the first independent and professional British artist to arrive in Egypt with the specific purpose of returning to England with a publishable portfolio of images. He traveled up the Nile in late 1838 as part of an extensive visit to Egypt and the Holy Land. His portfolio - "one of the richest that ever left the East" - was published between 1842 and 1849, with an enormous appeal for a Victorian public eager for vicarious travel to remote areas and new vistas. His views of Egypt - Pharaonic antiquities and scenes of Islamic Cairo- place Roberts in the middle of the Orientalist experience. He was one of the last of the pre-photographic topographical-descriptive artists, yet, in endowing his scenes with ambiance and life he anticipated the subsequent Orientalist artists who gave their images interpretative value and narrative meaning.

Napoleon Bonaparte's military conquest of Egypt in 1798 was short-lived, but the French incursion into that still closed and medieval country and the British measures to dislodge them brought Egypt directly to the attention of the outside world. Europe's peace after the Napoleonic wars encouraged travel, and the development of railroads throughout the continent and of steamships across the Mediterranean made Egypt accessible and even added it to the Grand Tour. Muhammad Ali Pasha, the new ruler, was intent on modernizing the country and actively supported contact with Western professionals and travelers.

A series of publications and discoveries provided further motivation and impulse to travel to Egypt. The earliest was Dominique Vivant Denon's Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt. He wrote about the sites, people and adventures that he had experienced as he accompanied General Desaix's pursuit of Murad Bey, the defeated Mamluk commander, along the Nile to Philae and back. The book appeared in 1802 and was immediately translated into English and German. Denon was the first to describe buried and forgotten marvels in vivid and immediate prose, and his book became a "bestseller." The official scholarly account and summary of the French Expedition, Description de l'Egypte, in 20 volumes of text and plates, followed between 1810 and 1822. Meanwhile, Giovanni Belzoni, a circus strongman invited to Egypt in 1815 by Muhammad Ali as a hydraulic engineer, had become an archaeological entrepreneur. In 1817, after he cleared the sand from the entrance of the Temple of Abu Simbel, he also removed the twelve- ton granite head of Ramesses II from his mortuary temple in Thebes to send to the British Museum where it arrived in 1818- the so-called Young Memnon which inspired Shelly's Ozymandias. In 1818 Belzoni discovered the entrance to the Pyramid of Khafre long thought to be a solid mass, and was the first to excavate in the Valley of the Kings, discovering the tomb of Seti I, the largest tomb until the discovery of KV5 in 1994. In 1821, Belzoni exhibited his collection of Egyptian antiquities as well as a replica of the Seti tomb in the Egyptian Hall in London. In his exhibition and in his book Narrative of the Operations and Discoveries etc., Belzoni promoted Egyptology as a subject of drama and excitement. In the mid-1820's a remarkable group of men - among them Robert Hay, Joseph Bonomi, Edward W. Lane, John Gardner Wilkinson -came to Egypt to document and analyze not only its past but its present. Roberts knew many of these men. Of the publications from this circle the most influential perhaps for Roberts were the books by Lane and Wilkinson. Lane's Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 1836, provided an understanding of Cairo and its Islamic culture, and is still valuable today, while Wilkinson's Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, 1837, was the first and most widely popular study of Egyptian antiquity. Wilkinson was the first European writer to realize that the lively and evocative tomb murals at Qurna in the Theban necropolis could be used as evidence for daily life in Ancient Egypt. In 1847 a condensed version of Wilkinson's work became Handbook for Egypt, the first comprehensive and reliable guidebook to the country.

Roberts capitalized on the swelling fascination with Egypt's ancient, exotic, and diverse appeal. For his trip in 1838 Roberts read the available literature, and relied on letters of introduction to various local British officials and residents. He also depended on information from people he met in Cairo. These contacts helped him to make the necessary arrangements for his stay and travels. However, at a time when there were no guide books and official services, his trip up the Nile was still exploration and discovery.

At the end of November 1838, on his return to Cairo, David Roberts made several topographical drawings of the Temple of Karnak. The Ruins of the Temple of Karnak, 1845, is based on one of these, but it is also more. Roberts manages to convey in the oil painting three dominant aspects of the cult complex in front of him: its spatial size; the temporal span of its imperial parts; and the romantic hold this mysterious, ruined legacy held for all who saw it.

In the painting, Roberts looks west, towards the Theban hills. The Sacred Lake is in the middle ground to the left. To the right, in the background, are the obelisks of Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III. The Queen-Pharaoh's, between the Fourth and Fifth pylons, is the taller, while that of Tuthmosis, the Napoleon of ancient Egypt, lies between the Third and Fourth pylons, almost merging into the columns of the Great Hypostyle Hall. The low colonnaded building, to the left, in front of the huge mass of the entrance pylon, (25th or 30th Dynasty), is the Festival Hall of Tuthmosis III. From its Middle Kingdom beginnings (c.1990 BC) down to the shrine of Philip Arrhidaeus, half-brother to Alexander the Great, (c.320 BC), successive pharaohs and rulers vied to make Karnak the most magnificent temple complex in Egypt, and in fact of the entire ancient world. Here dwelt Amun-Re, king of the gods and Lord of Karnak, his divine wife the vulture goddess Mut, and their divine child, the falcon-headed moon god Khons. As shrines, temples, obelisks, pylons, and sacred lakes were added to the east-west and north-south axes contained within the sixty-two acres of the mud brick walled enclosure, the temple of Karnak became the Eighth Wonder of the world, even as its plan and arrangement became one of the most confusing in Egypt. In the Roman period (c. 30 BC) the city of Thebes was utterly destroyed, and from then, until its rediscovery in the 19th century by soldiers-artists-archaeologists, the Temple sustained a long oblivion of natural decay and human use.

When the French scholars of Napoleon Bonaparte's Egyptian expedition first saw Karnak it was a jumble of vast structures, reduced to the condition of a romantic ruin. Dominique Vivant Denon, wrote that "on January 26, 1799 at the sight of antique Thebes a phantom still gigantic to our imagination, the army, suddenly and of one accord, at the sight of its scattered ruins, stood in amazement, and clapped their hands as ifthe complete conquest of Egypt were accomplished by taking possession of this ancient metropolis." In the oil painting David Roberts evokes both imperial majesty and abandoned ruin. He focuses on the east-west axis, the New Kingdom (18th and 19th Dynasties) nucleus: the Hypostyle and Festival Halls, and the obelisks that lie inside the entrance pylon. The north-south direction, not so dramatic, is only suggested. Roberts visualizes what other visitors felt and expressed. For example, Charles Barry, who was to become the architect for the London Houses of Parliament, and who saw Karnak in 1818 described his architectural reaction as "the most impressive I ever experienced." Pascal Coste, Muhammad Ali's chief engineer-architect from 1817-1827 visited Karnak in June of 1821. He remembered "these ruins" - pylons, colossi, obelisks, columns, avenues of sphinxes - "as a high and sublime idea of man and his works." In 1831 Captain Henry Light while serving with his regiment in Malta, traveled up the Nile to Abu Simbel. Of Karnak he wrote: " no description will be able to give an adequate idea of the enormous masses still defying the ravages of time." Florence Nightingale in February 1850, like Roberts before, stood "near the sacred lake[where] I had a glorious view of the Great Hall." In 1873-74, a winter trip up the Nile turned Amelia Edwards from enthusiastic amateur to active archaeological promoter. To her, this wonder of architecture, "is impossible to describe. The scale is too vast; the effect too tremendous; the sense of one's own dumbness and littleness, and incapacity, too complete and crushing."

Excavations since 1895 in removing much of Karnak's ruin and rubble have increased its marvelous dimensions. The area around the Sacred Lake has been cleared and an embankment at the far end now offers seating for the Sound and Light program. Pylons and buildings leading from the Hypostyle Hall to the southern gate have given that area new definition. But the main elements of Roberts' fine painting are still observable and recognizable. The scene still stands as a record of a distant and exciting discovery of Europe's early encounter with Egypt's continuing fascination.


Belzoni, Giovanni: Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia, etc., London, 1820.

Clayton, Peter: The Rediscovery of Ancient Egypt: Artists and Travellers in the 19th Century. London, Thames & Hudson, 1982.

Conner, Patrick, ed: The Inspiration of Egypt: Its Influence on British Artists, Travellers and Designers, 1700-1900, Brighton Borough Council, 1983.

Coste, Pascal Xavier: Mémoires d'un artiste: notes et souvenirs de voyages, 1817-1877, Marseille, Cayer, 1878, vol. 1
Denon, Vivant: Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt. London, 1803 trans. by A. Aiken Description de l'Egypte. Kvln, Taschen ed. 1994.

Edwards, Amelia: A Thousand Miles up the Nile, Los Angeles, J.P. Tarcher, Inc., 1983.

Egypt, Knopf Guides. New York, 1995.

James, T.G.H. Egypt Revealed: Artist-Travellers in an Antique Land. London, The Folio Society, 1997.

Lane, Edward William: Description of Egypt: Notes and views in Egypt and Nubia, made during the years 1825-26-27, and -28, Edited and with an introduction by Jason Thompson, The American University in Cairo Press, 2000.

Manley, Deborah & Abdel-Hakim S.eds.: Traveling Through Egypt: From 450 B.C. to the Twentieth Century, Cairo and New York, The American University in Cairo Press, 2004.

Nightingale, Florence: Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849-1850. New York, Grove Press, 1987.

Roberts, David: Egypt and Nubia, volume 3 London, 1845-49.

A. Sattin and S. Franquet: Egypt: The Explorer Guide, Cairo, The American University in Cairo Press, 2000.

Searight, Sarah: The British in the Middle East, London, East-West Publications, 1979.

Tillett, Selwyn: Egypt Itself: The Career of Robert Hay, Esquire of Linplum and Nunraw, 1799-1863, London, SD Books, 1984.

Thompson, Jason: Sir Gardner Wilkinson and His Circle, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1992.

Wilkinson, Sir John Gardner: Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, 3 vols, London, John Murray, 1837.

D. Roberts, View of Ruins of Karnak at Sunrise, from Egypt and Nubia, November 29, 1838, lithograph, pl. 59. Photo courtesy: Christie's Images.

Modern Day photograph of the Ruins of Karnak. Photo courtesy: Antonio Attini.

D. Roberts, Views of the Temples of Karnak from the South, from Egypt and Nubia, November 27, 1838, lithograph, pl. 55. Photo Courtesy: Christie's Images.

Modern Day photograph of south view of complex. Photo courtesy: Antonio Attini.

David Roberts
Ruins of the Great Temple of Karnac

by Briony Llewellyn

When David Roberts exhibited his Ruins of the Great Temple of Karnac at the Royal Academy in 1845, one of his largest paintings to date, his reputation was at its height. In the words of one of his many devotees in the popular press 'it is universally admitted that no artist of the present day portrays the scenery of the east with the judgement and exactitude which Mr Roberts displays' (Morning Herald, 1845, extract in Record Book, vol.I, p.159).

Since Robert's return from Egypt and the Levant (the lands of the eastern Mediterranean now comprising Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel) in 1839, his watercolours and oil paintings had been received with both popular and critical acclaim. He had been elected a full member of the Royal Academy and rapidly became part of the artistic establishment of the day in London. In 1842 a dinner was held in his honour in Edinburgh, at which Lord Cockburn expressed the general approbation of his achievements: 'He explored that patriarchal land; he searched its inmost recesses, and returned to his native country laden with the richest treasures, after having completed the finest pilgrimage of art which has ever perhaps been performed by a single man' (Ballantine, p.150). That year the first part of an ambitious series of lithographs, executed by Louis Haghe after Roberts's watercolours, was published, and was a resounding success. It was immediately described as 'a noble and beautiful workforemost of the productions of the age and country' (The Art-Union, 1842, p.15) and, later when more than half the lithographs had been published, another critic deemed it 'one of the most valuable publications of our day - vividly illustrating our readings in history, sacred as well as profane' (The Athenaeum, 1847, p.843). More recently, the publication, known in its entirety as The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia (F.G. Moon, London, 6 vols, 1842-49) has been described as 'one of the most important and elaborate ventures of nineteenth-century publishing and the apotheosis of the tinted lithograph' (Abbey, vol. 2, p.341).

Roberts's path to fame had taken a circuitous route, but was firmly of the rags to riches variety. The son of a poor shoemaker on the outskirts of Edinburgh, David was brought up in straitened circumstances that prevented him receiving more than the most elementary education. An early talent for drawing led to a seven-year apprenticeship to an Edinburgh house-painter, but shortly after the conclusion of this an opportunity arose for the young man with artistic ambitions to join a company of strolling players as scene-painter, and travel to northern England. For the next 14 years he derived his main source of income from the theatre, first in Edinburgh and Glasgow and subsequently in London, at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, providing backdrops for several different productions and a variety of managers. From the early 1820s, encouraged by his success, he began working in oils on a smaller scale, entirely self-taught except by the example of artist friends such as Clarkson Stanfield (1793-1867). His easel paintings were accepted for exhibition at the Society of British Artists, of which he was a founder member, the British Institution and, from 1826, the Royal Academy.

With peace restored between France and Britain, artists were quick to realise the commercial potential of the picturesque scenery and architecture of the continent. Roberts was among them, and travelled several times to northern Europe, using his sketches as the basis for both oil paintings and prints. Shrewdness and dogged hard work ensured his success. Realising that novelty was the key to maintaining this momentum, he made the first of his two journeys to less charted territory. In 1832-33 he spent a year in Spain, where in Seville, Cordoba, Granada, and briefly in the North African town of Tangier, he encountered Islamic architecture for the first time. He returned with a large quantity of sketches: his consequent oil paintings, several on a large scale, met with acclaim, and his prints, published in popular periodicals, brought him widespread recognition.

The 1820s and 1830s saw an increasing curiosity about the 'exotic' lands of the Muslim East. This was stimulated, on the one hand, by the illustrated publications resulting from Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798 by Baron Denon and the team of French savants (see Caroline William's earlier entry) and by the tangible evidence of ancient artefacts, brought back from Egypt by early explorers and excavators, such as the mighty Giovanni Belzoni, whose exhibition of the marble sarcophagus of Seti I from Thebes (Luxor, Karnak and the West bank necropolis) at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly in 1821 sparked off the "Egyptomania" of the 1820s, and on the other, by the pseudo-oriental tales and poetry of Romantic writers, above all Byron. In 1829 Roberts exhibited at the Society of British Artists an imaginary tour de force of ancient Egyptian colonnades, pylons and pyramids, The Israelites Leaving Egypt (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery; Barbican, 1986, pl.62), which owed much to his experience as a scene-painter. Its biblical theme was another manifestation of popular interest in the east - as the cradle of Christianity and thus the source of western religious belief. Some years later Roberts was among several well-known topographical artists, who, like himself had not visited the near east, and who supplied watercolours for engravings in Landscape Illustrations of the Bible (T.H.Horne, engravings by W. and E. Finden, London,1836), an immensely popular publication that ran into several editions. At the same time an increasing number of middle-class Britons, assisted by improved rail and steam-ship transport, were travelling beyond their island shores, several of them seeking out ancient history in the lands of the Bible and of ancient Egypt. Among these were scholars whose publications, written in the spirit of burgeoning scientific enquiry, sought to bring an understanding of both ancient and modern Egypt to a wider public than hitherto (see Caroline William' s earlier entry). Never slow to catch the public mood, Roberts jumped on the oriental bandwagon, determined to outdo in scope, veracity and magnificence the work of his predecessors.

With hindsight, Roberts's biographer, James Ballantine described his friend's visit to the Near East as the 'great central episode of his artistic life' and the fulfilment of 'the dream of his life from boyhood' (Ballantine, pp. 78, 231). How much the journey was long anticipated and how much the result of Roberts's innate ability to seize an opportune moment is open to debate; certainly he was ever keen to stress the authenticity of his work and to maximise his credentials as an 'oriental traveller'. The year after his return, his friend D.R. Hay commissioned a portrait of him, supposedly in 'the Dress he wore in Palestine', from the Edinburgh artist, Robert Scott Lauder (fig.1). His features, his stance and his costume, which consists of items of various eastern origins, are all highly romanticised, in a deliberate attempt to boost this image. Later, in at least one lithograph, he portrays himself in oriental dress sketching in an Egyptian temple (View from under the Portico of Dayr-el Medeeneh, Thebes; 1849, vol.II, pl. 76; 1856, vol.V, pl.201). He did at times wear oriental clothing during his travels, but purely for practical purposes, and it is clear from his Journal that he wore western dress when on the Nile. (fig 2). All this said, Roberts's achievement in travelling so great a distance - from Alexandria to Abu Simbel and back to Cairo, across the Sinai desert to Petra, which few westerners had visited, and on through the Holy Land to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth and eventually the great Roman temples of Baalbek - should not be underestimated. Travel was slow, arduous and sometimes dangerous, disease and lack of sanitation were widespread, weather at times oppressive and even violent, and living conditions often uncomfortable. Despite this, Roberts's spirits seldom flagged and although the traditional feelings of western superiority undoubtedly underlay his attitude to the inhabitants, he was capable of sympathy for the plight of the impoverished and of admiration for the dignity of several individuals that he encountered.

Roberts arrived in Alexandria in September 1839, continued on to Cairo and lost no time in hiring a boat and crew to take him up the Nile. The prevailing wind dictated that travellers proceed as quickly as possible to their destination - in Roberts's case the great temples of Rameses II at Abu Simbel, beyond the first cataract of the Nile - with only a brief look at the antiquities, and then make the return voyage with the current, allowing time to draw the temples along the way. On the journey south he reached Luxor on 21st October, and having examined its temple on the morning of the 23rd, proceeded on to Karnak: 'If Luxor struck me with its magnitude, what shall I say of Karnac? Its grandeur cannot be imagined. Were I to write what I think it would be mere rhapsody. It is so far beyond every thing I have ever seen that I can draw no comparison. Like all the other temples on approaching it you are disappointed Now the plain on which they stand is a dead level to such an extent that they could be distinguished and that is all. It is only on coming near that you are overwhelmed as it were with astonishment; you must be under them and look up and walk round them - and for this reason I am fearful painting will scarcely convey any notion of what I mean'.

Roberts was not alone among western travellers to be impressed by the size and magnificence of the ruins at Karnak. It became the norm to express awe and bewilderment, some with a greater sense of drama and hyperbole than others. A few years later, Isabella Romer, one of the earliest British women to make the Nile voyage, was among the most effusive: 'never did human imagination conceive, or human hands execute so stupendous a work! The effect it produced upon me at first view, was that of absolute stupor; and the longer I contemplated the giant structures of Karnak, the more I felt impressed with the belief that the men who created them were not like the races who now people the earth; they must have been Titans - giants - beings who rode upon Mammoths, and would have made a lap-dog of an elephant! and two days passed in examining its details, so far from familiarizing me with the grandeur of the place, has only served to increase my wonder and amazement - ay, and I will now say admiration, of this master-piece of Pharaonic architecture' (Romer, A Pilgrimage to the Temples and Tombs of Egypt, Nubia and Palestine in 1845-6, London 1846, Vol. I, pp. 303-04). Shortly afterwards, Florence Nightingale visited Egypt in an attempt to alleviate the emotional turbulence that had beset her. One of her letters home, in February 1850, was devoted to her experience of Karnak: 'Karnak is the history of a race, the greatest race, perhaps, that ever existed - a race of giants, who illustrated themselves in their successive generations in this temple palace - it is the political, ethical, and religious manifestation of the 'Unknown God' - it was the residence of his viceregents, the kings - the sanctuary of his wise men, the priests - the place of justice.' Florence Nightingale, Anthony Sattin ed.,February 1850, Letters from Egypt, A Journey on the Nile 1849-1850 London, 1987, pp. 152, 156-57). Later in the same decade, the quirky and pithy response of Edward Lear, that the temple made him feel 'like a cheese mite among such giants', when he visited it in February 1854, was typical of this eccentric artist (cited in V. Noakes, Edward Lear, London 1979, p. 122).

Despite his earlier misgivings, when Roberts returned to Karnak on his way north, he spent four days making seven drawings, two oil studies and 'one general view in pencil', (Journal, 27-30 November 1838). These became the basis for seven fully worked-up watercolours and the lithographs made from them in volumes I and II of Egypt, and for two large oil paintings (Ballantine, nos 113 and 130, pp. 162, 249-50). Most of these sketches are close-up views of the mighty columns in the Hypostyle Hall (see, for example, the re-worked watercolour, Thebes, Karnac, Manchester City Art Galleries, fig. 3), and of the pylons, but two watercolours show the ruins from a distance, one, looking west, titled General View of Karnak looking towards Baban-el-Molook, (Pierpont Morgan Library, New York) (fig. 4) the other, from the south, General View of Karnak (Private Collection; sold Christie's, London, 2 April 1996, lot 97) (fig. 5). In both these, the flat empty foreground and wide-angled view, with only a hint of the presence of humanity, emphasise the isolation and decay of the distant ruins. It is clear from the text that accompanies the lithograph of the view looking across the Nile to the Valley of the Kings (Egypt, 1849, Vol.II, pl. 75; 1856, Vol.V, pl.200) that Roberts and his publishers wished to emphasise the vastness of the site and the contrast between its former grandeur and present derelict state: 'It is difficult for the mind to conceive a scene of more impressive interest. Where busy millions have trod, all is now decayed and desolate; leaving only as a record of the greatness of its Pharaoh's, structures so vast, even in their ruins, that nothing exists in any other country, within thousands of years of the age of their erection, to mark such power and greatness in any other former age and people. Everywhere around the spectator lies evidence of the immense buildings which covered the plains of Thebes. Bases of columns, substructures of temples, and enormous masses, of which it would be difficult to trace the purport, are everywhere seen'. [They also wished it to be seen in conjunction with another general view, from the west, published in the previous volume of the series (Egypt, 1846, Vol.I, pl. xx; 1656, Vol. IV, pl.163), attempting to make the connection through the sacred lake, seen on the right in the one, and on the left in the other]. But, written by someone who had not been there, the two sacred lakes at Karnak are confused.

When Roberts returned to Cairo, his portfolio full of sketches of every known site in Upper Egypt, he knew its value, writing, both to his friend, D.R.Hay, and in his Journal of his confidence in its future success: 'I am the first Artist at least from England that has yet been here and there is much in this. The French work I now find conveys no idea of these splendid remains. We shall see what impression they make in England.' (Journal, 20 December 1838). This is not the only time that he makes reference to the failings of the French Description de l'Egypte or the superiority of his own observations, ever mindful of the competition in his field, but it is undeniable that he studied this and other earlier publications closely, and, at times, lifted viewpoints and compositional devices from them, adapting or elaborating on them for his own pictorial ends. The large general view of Karnak in the Description, for example, might seem confusing to the untutored viewer; Roberts's composition, eliminating some details and taking a viewpoint further away, gives a new visual coherence to the scene.

Roberts arrived in England in July 1839 with a precious cargo of 272 large sketches, a panorama of Cairo and three smaller sketchbooks, knowing that he had enough material to 'serve me for the rest of my life' (Journal, 28 January 1839). He had some difficulty finding a publisher willing to take on so large and expensive a venture, but eventually F.G.Moon agreed to do so, paying Roberts the large sum of 3,000 GBP for the use of his drawings. The sketches that he had made on the voyage were deemed not complete enough, and in order to give them greater commercial viability Roberts made 'a series of entire new drawings' (letter from Roberts to D.R. Hay, 28 May 1842) from which the lithographer, Louis Haghe, worked, creating a total of 247 plates, originally issued in parts from 1842 but eventually published in six large volumes. The difference in emphasis that sometimes occurred between the original sketch and the lithograph is exemplified in the comparison between the surviving preliminary watercolour, General View of Karnak and the lithograph to which it is loosely related, Grand Gateway leading to the Temple of Karnak, Thebes (Egypt, 1849, Vol.II, pl.45; 1856, Vol.V, pl.170, title vignette) (fig. 6.) Compressed to fit the format of the title page, the composition hones in on the ruins, giving them greater substance and definition, and losing the sense of ethereal emptiness that Roberts had originally conceived.

Roberts's industry knew no bounds. In the decade after his return from the east, not only was he hard at work re-drawing the 247 images for the lithographs, but he was also tackling large and complex oil paintings for exhibition. Such was the inspiration that Roberts derived from the Egyptian temples, matched by the demand for images of them from his public, that he painted and sold at least twelve during that decade, exhibiting most of these at the Royal Academy, in addition to oils of other Eastern subjects, interspersed with views in Scotland and France. It was clear from the start that the financial and physical risks he had taken to obtain 'novel' subjects had paid off. He exhibited no less than five Eastern subjects at the Royal Academy in 1840, only a year after his return. These were praised by the two most respected art periodicals of the day: the Art-Union describing them as 'all pictures of high merit, and of great interest, as introducing us to scenes comparatively new to art' and the Athenaeum critic writing even more effusively, 'This artist has returned from Egypt and Syria with his portfolio full of such scenes as those regions alone can furnish. He travelled from Cairo up the Valley of the Nile, tracing, as he went, the architecture of the eldest-born of nations, delineating it as it stands, with the varied colours upon it, which three thousand years have not been able to remove'. Early paintings such as The Dromos, or outer court of the Great Temple of Edfou, in Upper Egypt (1840; Private Collection) and Portico of the Temple of Dendera, in Upper Egypt (1841; Bristol Museums and Art Gallery), both close-up views of parts of the temples, showing the colour and detail of their architectural components, had established Roberts's credentials as a painter of ancient Egyptian architecture. Keen to display the versatility of his compositional skills, he subsequently exhibited a large, panoramic view of Jerusalem, and, in 1843, Ruins on the Island of Philae, Nubia (Private Collection; fig.7), in which foreground figures, middle-ground ruins and distant hills, all suffused in a glowing light, are employed to create a sense of past grandeur and romantic decay. The success of this formula was recognised by the Art-Union which concluded: 'This is a picture of a venerable solitude: it is true there are figures, but they have nothing to do with the ruins; they and the yet reluctant piles of stones are at the two extremities of a long series of ages'.
The present work, Roberts's large Ruins of the Great Temple of Karnak, in Upper Egypt, looking towards the Lybyan chain of hills, called Baban el Malouk (the gate of Kings) in which are the excavated tombs of the Kings of Thebes - Sunset, to give it its full, grandiose title, of two years later, utilises the same compositional devices to achieve similar ends, but the temporality of the setting sun imbues the scene with a greater sense of melancholy and forgotten greatness. It was enthusiastically received: 'Into this illustrious piece of architecture, the artist has introduced a feeling, poetry and effect, which are among the highest attributes of genius', enthused the Literary Gazette. 'And yet every figure and feature of the scene are studied with the most perfect accuracy. The sun sets on the Libyan hills and, on the lower grounds, tinging them with a pervading glow of ruddy light, which is marvellously beautiful; and on the left is a sheet of water, deliciously reflecting the cool against the warm colour, and hemmed in by straight lines, so as also to be as fine a contrast to the rugged and irregular shapes of the mountains. It is a splendid work'.

Roberts's inclusion of contemporary Arab life was not mentioned by this critic, but the statuesque figures in the foreground, the tent being pitched on the left and the vast approaching caravan of men and camels, add an element of narrative incident that would have reflected the mid-nineteenth-century taste for drama and sentiment. As The Times concluded in its review: 'Some large figures placed in the extreme foreground serve to give significance and character to the picture' (6 May, 1845, p.6). The fiery and influential art critic, John Ruskin, was one of the few to strike a dissonant note: 'their [ie. his pictures painted from his sketches] power has been farther destroyed by the necessity the artist seems to feel himself under of eking out their effect by points of bright foreground colour; and thus we have been encumbered with caftans, pipes, scimitars, and black hair, when all we wanted was a lizard, or an ibis' (Modern Painters, 1853, vol.1). Modern opinion might concur and find his groups of men and women both stereotyped and theatrical; but far from being symbols of Muslim degradation, as many of Roberts's inhabitants of ancient ruins have been read (see K.Bendiner, 'David Roberts in the Near East: Social and Religious Themes', in Art History, vol.6, no.1, March 1983.), they and their surroundings are unconvincingly clean and tidy, in contrast to the reality observed by contemporary travellers of impoverished locals squatting amidst mounds of rubbish. Roberts seems merely to have taken figures similar to those seen in the lithograph of the other 'general view' and dropped them in to occupy the empty space in the foreground of this one, to enhance its pictorial appeal. To this end, in addition to his sanitisation of both location and population, he was also prepared to sacrifice strict topographical and atmospheric accuracy. Ruskin saw these methods as a deficiencies and concluded his critique of Roberts in Modern Painters with the comment: 'and it is bitterly to be regretted that the accuracy and elegance of his work should not be aided by that genuineness of hue and effect which can only be given by the uncompromising effort to paint, not a fine picture, but an impressive and known verity'. And yet, Ruskin acknowledged several positives: Roberts's 'fidelity of intention and honesty of system' and that 'his execution is dexterous and delicate'. That Roberts is likely to have intended more than just pictorial effect in his combination of ancient and modern elements, is suggested by the literary or biblical quotations that accompanied several of his Royal Academy exhibits, including his Karnak, perhaps a deliberate bid to raise his own landscapes to the level of the revered J.M.W.Turner's Italian exhibits.

Roberts repeated his winning formula of romantic ruins and contemporary drama several times during the ensuing decade: A Recollection of the Desert on the Approach of the Simoon (lithograph shown as fig. 8), painted in 1850 for Charles Dickens, who admired it as 'a poetic rendering of the scene', but criticised by William Holman Hunt for its lack of topographical correctness, and Ruins of the Temple of Kom Ombos, Morning (Private Collection)(fig. 9), of 1853, bought by the influential dealer, Ernest Gambart, are two further examples. By then, the only artist whose Egyptian landscapes with ancient ruins might have challenged Roberts's pre-eminence in this field, had died an early death. William Müller (1812-1845), a young artist from Bristol, had visited Egypt at the same time as Roberts, although neither artist seems to have been aware of the other's presence. He too had travelled up the Nile, but only as far as Luxor, and when he returned home began exhibiting oil paintings of the romantically situated temples, including Avenue of the Sphinxes, Moonlight, Thebes, (1841; Bristol Museums and Art Gallery). While these were well received by some critics, they were often refused or 'skyed' (hung high up in the room) by the Royal Academy, and Müller was never treated with the same deference that the older artist enjoyed. It is not hard to see why Müller's oils, with their stilted clumsiness, are now far less valued than Roberts's, and it is for the magnificent bravura and visual expression of his watercolours that he is now admired.
In his lifetime, Müller could never match the high prices paid by ready buyers for Roberts's paintings. Roberts's Egyptian oils were no exception: Edfou was bought by Frank Hall Standish, a well-known collector of Spanish art, for 200 GBP, Dendera by David Barclay, M.P. for 330 GBP and Philae, bought by his friend Jens Pell, with whom he had travelled in the east, for 100 GBP, soon afterwards sold for 200 GBP and in 1858 fetched 400 guineas. Among the highest prices that Roberts received for an oil in the 1840s, was the 400 GBP paid by Joseph Arden for his Karnak.

Joseph Arden (1799-1879) was a wealthy barrister on the Home Counties circuit who owned a large collection of early to mid-Victorian paintings, in which Pre-Raphaelites like Millais, Seddon and Inchbold and landscapists, like Stanfield, E.W.Cooke and F.R. Lee, as well as another orientalist painter, J.F.Lewis, were represented, in addition to three other paintings by Roberts. His purchase of Roberts's Karnak in 1845, and in the same year, at auction, the same artist's view of a Cairo street, Bazaar of the Coppersmiths (1842; location unknown), may have stimulated an interest in Egypt. The following year he travelled there for an extended period, and during a trip on the Nile in the winter of 1846-47, acquired several ancient papyri, He was on friendly terms with British residents in Cairo, including the Egyptologist Joseph Bonomi and the collector and dealer in antiquities, A.C.Harris. He probably also met John Frederick Lewis, who had been living there for some years, and from whom he may have commissioned The Hhareem (Private Collection, Japan), which created a sensation when it was exhibited at the Society of Painters in Water-Colours in London in 1850.

The writer of an article in the Art Journal in 1857 describing his collection, claimed enthusiastically that Arden and his wife were 'the most patriotic friends of contemporary Art to whom our school is indebted for its rapid elevation to the present degree of excellence'. Roberts's daughter, Christine, however, had a less high opinion of him, writing in her journal that she regretted the sale of her father's Karnak to him 'as he has not taste enough to appreciate it and it will never be seen in his house' (9 April 1845). The painting was in fact displayed, as the Art Journal 1857 'Visit' reveals, but this article also hints that many paintings were not seen to their full advantage. By then, the identity of the locality seemed less important than the narrative: its title was given as 'The Caravan in the Desert' and it was described as 'a halting station for caravans and travellers'. The earlier part of the century's concern for topographical accuracy had given way to the mid Victorian enthusiasm for narratives of emotion and nostalgia. In Roberts's work during the 1840s a subtle change in emphasis takes place from one to the other, resulting in a synthesis, successfully expressed in the present painting, of both approaches.

Famous in his own time as a documenter of historic sites, Roberts is still today among the best known and most highly regarded of 'Orientalist' painters. His representations of ancient temples and tombs in the Egyptian landscape remain perhaps the most familiar western images of these locations, now more than ever frequented by tourists. Their ubiquitous presence, in airports and hotels and on calendars and advertisements, is testimony to the enduring appeal of his romantic vision of Egypt.

Photograph of David Roberts, September 1844 by David Octavius Hill (1802-90), Photo courtesy: Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

(fig. 1) Robert Scott Lauder, Portrait of David Roberts in Turkish Clothing, 1840, oil on canvas. Photo Courtesy: Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

(fig, 2) David Roberts, View from under the Portico of Dary El Medeeneh, Thebes, 1848, watercolor. Photo courtesy: The Thalassic Collection, Ltd., Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University.

(fig. 3) David Roberts, Thebes, Karnak, 1838, pencil, watercolor and bodycolor. Photo courtesy: Manchester City Art Galleries.

(fig. 4) David Roberts, The Ruins of Karnac, Thebes, looking towards Biban-el-Molook, 1838, pencil, watercolor and bodycolor. Photo courtesy: c. The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, 1977.25.

(fig. 5) David Roberts, View of Karnak, Egypt, 1838, pencil, watercolor and bodycolor. Private Collection.

(fig. 6) David Roberts, Grand Gateway leading to the Temple of Karnak, Thebes, from Egypt and Nubia, 1846-49, lithograph, title vignette to vol. II, pl. 45. Photo courtesy: Christie's.

(fig. 7) David Roberts, The Island of Philae, Nubia, 1843, oil on canvas, Private Collection.

(fig. 8) David Roberts, The Approach of the Simoon, from Egypt and Nubia, 1846-49, lithograph, vol.III, pl. 114. Photo courtesy: Christie's.

(fig. 9) David Roberts, Morning, Ruins of Kom-Ombo, 1853, oil on canvas. Private Collection.


David Roberts, Record Book, 1829-64, unpublished ms, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.

David Roberts, Eastern Journal, 1838-39, unpublished ms, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.

J.Ballantine, The Life of David Roberts R.A., Edinburgh, 1866.

E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, The Works of John Ruskin, Library Edition, London and New York, 1903-12, vol.III, pp.223-26.

J.R. Abbey, Travel in Aquatint and Lithography 1770-1860, 1956-57, vol.1, pp.244-47.

Mary Anne Stevens, ed., The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse, Royal Academy of Arts, London and National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1984.
H. Guiterman and B. Llewellyn, David Roberts, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 1986.

F. Greenacre and S. Stoddard, 'W.J. Müller 1812-1845', Bristol Museums and Art Gallery, 1991.

K. Matyjaszkiewicz, 'Roberts David (1796-1864)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford, 2004.

Provenance: Joseph Arden; Christie's London, 26 April 1879, lot 73.
Acquired at above sale by H.W. Birch.
R.E. Arnesby Wilson; Christie's London, 21 July 1919, lot 88.
Acquired at above sale by Bourne.
Anonymous sale, Sotheby's Belgravia. 28 November 1972, lot 81.
with The Fine Art Society, Ltd., London.
Purchased from the above by the present owner, 1997.

Artist or Maker: David Roberts, R.A (Scottish, 1796-1864)

Exhibited: London, The Royal Academy, 1845, no. 34.
Edinburgh, The Royal Scottish Academy, 1849, no. 376.

London, The Fine Art Society, Ltd. Spring Exhibition, 1997, no. 11.

Literature: Roberts's Record Book (1845, no. 118).
The Times, 6 May 1845, p. 6.
The Literacy Gazette, 10 May 1845, p. 298.
The Athenaeum, 17 May 1845, p. 476.
The Art Union, 1845, p.181.
The Art-Journal 'The Collection of Joseph Arden, Esq.', 1857, p.310.
The Gentleman's Magazine, 1865, p. 345.
James Ballantine, The Life of David Roberts RA, Edinburgh, 1866, p. 162, no. 130.
W. Roberts Memorials of Christie's, 1897, vol. 1, p. 304.

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