Duke University Alumni Magazine

Escaping to the Exotic
Images of the Holy Land
by Sarah Walker Schroth

El Khasne

A Victorian arists was one of the first to capture the monumental grandeur of Near East biblical landscapes once closed to travelers. This fall, his exquisite prints will be on display at Duke.
ne of the most remarkable purchases in years by the Duke University Museum of Art is the "Royal" edition of The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, and Arabia. These 123 unbound sheets are the rare, imperial subscription edition issued by artist David Roberts under the patronage of Queen Victoria in 1842 in six leather folios. Each sheet was hand-colored at the time of completion under Roberts' supervision. The museum's exhibit, "Jerusalem and the Holy Land Re-discovered: The Prints of David Roberts (1796-1864)," runs from September 26 until December 29.

     When Scotsman David Roberts' The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, and Arabia first appeared in London between 1842 and 1844, its intensely colored prints caused an immediate sensation. They were the first artistic views of the biblical landscape and monuments to come out of the Near East since it had become accessible to travelers. The eleven months that Roberts traveled in the Near East, between 1838 and 1839, had yielded a complete visual record of the Holy Land in 123 plates.

     Born in Stockbridge in 1796, Roberts at an early age was recognized for his skill in making faithful renderings of the buildings and land around Edinburgh. Without financial means, he couldn't aspire to formal training in the arts. At the age of twelve, he was apprenticed to a house painter, from whom he learned to paint the trompe l'oeil effects of marble and wood that were popular in interior decorating schemes of the time. Fluency in rendering architecture and building materials helped him land a position as a scene painter in a local strolling company. Traveling with the company taught Roberts how to work effectively on the road: He developed the scene painter's ability to keep meticulous order in makeshift studios that could be set up and broken down quickly. He also found time to indulge his first love, sketching out of doors.

Encampment of the pilgrims at Jericho

     The unconventional training ground of commercial theater left Roberts well-equipped for the rigors of topographical painting. His rapidity as a painter was crucial in the field, where he usually had just a matter of hours before the light changed or his itinerary had him moving on. More importantly, the theater gave Roberts direct access to the public taste: Success in set design depended on achieving strong dramatic effects that would give audiences immediate delight.

     When Roberts began to practice it in the 1820s, topographical painting had become very popular among British artists and their patrons. The vogue for topography was inspired by Rousseau's call for a return to nature, technical developments in watercolor painting--the highly portable medium most commonly used by topographical painters--and an increased appreciation for the beauty of the British landscape. Roberts' first trip abroad was to Normandy; one of his paintings from the trip was "The West Facade, Notre Dame, Rouen." The reception of that painting encouraged him to forego the security of his theatrical salary for the vagaries of the fine-art world.

     After a diversion into history painting, Roberts returned to topographical subjects. By the 1830s, colonization and the expansion of Britain had generated an interest in the representation of foreign lands; industrialization brought the Romantic need to escape to "undiscovered" exotic territories. Roberts was attracted to the gypsy costumes, Moorish archi- tecture, and medieval pilgrimage sites of Spain.

Arabs of the desert
He had so much success showing and selling his Spanish sketches that he made plans to publish them as prints, using the printmaking process called lithography--literally "writing on stone"--invented in Germany in 1798. Instead of a metal plate, a smooth stone serves as the surface on which the lines of the composition are drawn with a greasy crayon. The image to be printed is ink-receptive, the blank areas ink-repellent. Lithography achieves greater ranges in tonality at less cost than aquatint and engraving, and closely imitates chalk and watercolor drawing. His Picturesque Sketches of Spain came out in 1837 and sold 1,200 sets in the first two months, providing Roberts with enough money to finance his next and most important journey, to Egypt and the Holy Land.

     Roberts left London for Egypt in 1838, the first artist to travel in the Near East without a patron or connection to a military expedition or missionary group. He spent four months in and around Cairo before crossing the Sinai desert to St. Catherine's monastery at Mount Sinai. He journeyed next to Petra and then to every major biblical site in the Holy Land, crossing two deserts and several mountain ranges, traversing three different Arab countries, and fighting the threat of the plague in Jerusalem. When he packed up to return to England, he had three full sketchbooks and more than 272 watercolors, comprising enough material to occupy him as an artist for the rest of his life.

     In the Holy Land views, Roberts combines elements from the three major traditions of landscape commonly employed by topographical painters in England: Claude Lorrain's idealized Italianate landscapes; the seventeenth-century Dutch interest in rendering the particular and commonplace, including the changing effects of weather; and Canaletto's crisp, clear sunlit views with large expanses of inactive sky. To these influences Roberts adds picturesque formulae that betray a preference for a constructed, beautified nature bent to the laws of art: the recurring motif of a ruin juxtaposed with colorful vegetation in the foreground, figures placed to one side of the composition as framing devices, the rendering of the site almost always in the middle distance of the composition.

The theatre, Petra
     By the time Roberts returned from the Holy Land in 1839, lithographers had developed and perfected the tinted lithograph, an advanced technique for printing in color that created a more painterly effect by giving the appearance of wash drawings made with individual brush strokes. The tinted lithograph was the ideal medium for reproduction of Roberts' Holy Land sketches; and both Roberts and his publisher felt that the Holy Land publishing project demanded the best and most prolific lithographer of his day. Louis Haghe was born in Belgium and came to England some time before 1825, where he established himself as a leading reproductive lithographer and a specialist in the tinted lithograph. In addition to color, Haghe was able to coax out of the stone a wide variety of special effects that, once noticed, delight in their complexity and abstractness. Perhaps the most difficult effect accomplished by Haghe is the fact that the distances dissolve while the foregrounds remain crisp, a reflection of Roberts' individualistic style.

     In 1844, when the last lot came off the press, Roberts was elected to the Royal Academy. Critical voices were outweighed by the overwhelmingly positive response by the public to the Holy Land prints. In the next ten years, Roberts ventured out on topographical assignments, finally to Italy and Northern Europe, but he admitted that these trips paled by comparison with his Near East adventure. He died of a stroke on his way to his studio in 1864; he was sixty-eight. He had secured a reputation as both the first professional artist of talent to render the Holy Land visible, and one of the Near East's last painters in the topographical tradition.

--by Sarah Walker Schroth, from Jerusalem and the Holy Land Rediscovered: The Prints of David Roberts. The book is available from the Duke University


srael has experienced the extremities of modern human experience: war and genocide, survival and renewal, unchecked urbanism, the challenge of assimilating diverse races and cultures, terrorism, and the moral dilemma of military occupation. As a result, the artwork produced there reflects the vital and complex nature of that society.

     "Jerusalem and the Holy Land Rediscovered" is part of a larger state initiative to explore Israeli art and make it available throughout the state and the Southeast. The Duke University Museum of Art (DUMA) is one of nearly two dozen of the state's leading cultural organizations taking part in this unprecedented examination of Israeli arts. The Israel/ North Carolina Cultural Exchange, initiated by Governor James B. Hunt and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, includes museum exhibits, film festivals, artist residencies, and public programs. Exhibitions will open at organizing museums this fall and travel to other venues throughout 1997, and the exchange will serve as a model for future statewide collaborations among arts organizations.

General view of Tyre

     Duke faculty have been involved in the statewide initiative as well. Religion professor Eric Meyers contributed an essay to the DUMA show's catalogue, providing a his-torical overview to the "rediscovery" of the Holy Land that began in the early nineteenth century. Meyers was also a consultant to the North Carolina Museum of Art show, "Sepphoris in Galilee: Cross Currents of Culture."

     Religion professor W.D. Davies also contributed an essay to the DUMA show's catalogue, writing an analysis of the importance of the land in Jewish law.

[Back to Top]

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor