In August 1838, the distinguished Scottish painter David Roberts embarked on an extraordinary eleven-month adventure in Egypt and the Holy Land. It was to be the journey of a lifetime. Roberts was determined to return with an accurate depiction of lands once celebrated in the Bible and in antiquity but now almost unknown to Western visitors. He already enjoyed fame in London and Edinburgh as a theatrical set designer and as a friend and peer of such luminaries as Edwin Landseer, David Wilkie, John Constable, and J.M.W. Turner. Soon he was to crown his brilliant career as the foremost architectural and topographical artist of his era.
Frequently clad in colorful Turkish garb, in the company of a few equally hardy Europeans and Arab guides as well as an occasional armed escort, Roberts produced an incisive diary and hundreds of remarkable sketches that gave a vivid picture of the Near East: hauntingly beautiful mountains, precipitous ravines, barren deserts, Bedouins and Ottoman overlords, veiled women, busling cities, dazzling mosques, Christian shrines, lonely monasteries, and archaeological wonders. Roberts chronicled for Western eyes his rediscovery of an exotic culture and landscape scarcely changed since the time of Jesus. His work was at once realistic and atmospheric, and it found a wide and receptive audience, including Queen Victoria. Published between 1842 and 1849 as albums of striking hand-tinted lithographs, Roberts' 248 plates not only were an enduring artistic achievement, but by their embodiment of fact rather than fable, they helped redefine one civilization for another.
Robert Grant Irving was educated at Oxford, Cambridge, and Yale and has taught at Yale, Wesleyan, Trinity, and the University of Virginia. He is the author of the prize-winning book, Indian Summer, on the creation of New Delhi.
In our Echoes of Egypt: Conjuring the Land of the Pharaohs lecture series, prominent experts discuss their research and unique perspectives on themes in the exhibition. Join us for Part I of the series in April; Part II will take place during the fall semester.