"The perishable nature of even the most enduring works of human genius.” - The Scottish painter David Roberts

24 October 1796, the Scottish painter David Roberts was born Edinburgh.

“I reached my boat overcome by melancholy reflections on the mutability of all human greatness, and the perishable nature of even the most enduring works of human genius.” (David Roberts)

David Roberts: "Sandstorm approaching the sphinx at Gîza at sunset, Egypt" (1849)

Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt was a disaster. After three years, 20,000 men were dead, a whole fleet was lost and the future emperor’s reputation was quite tarnished. Nevertheless, the 167 scientists, scholar artists, the “savants” that accompanied the army, could celebrate a huge success – even if their original purpose to map the territory, construct roads and open something like a premature Suez Canal didn’t play a role after a very short while. The rediscovery of ancient Egyptian relics soon became the main purpose of the savants and from the sight of the Pyramids of Giza to finding a host of mummies and the Rosetta Stone, Egypt became all the rage in Europe, the natal hour of Egyptology as a science and a fascination for everything Egyptian that would last for decades, well into the 20th century. Explorers, adventurers and pioneer archaeologists soon returned to the Nile and continued the work the savants began – and the monumental, wonderfully illustrated work they assembled, the Description de l'Égypte, published in 1809, was complemented by new artists who furthered the fascination for Ancient Egypt by capturing its picturesque remains in fantastic paintings and lithographs. One of the most talented and best known of them was David Roberts.

David Roberts: "Colossal figures in front of the Great Temple of Aboo-Simbel" (1838)

Roberts came from modest circumstances, was apprenticed as a housepainter and studied the arts autodidactically in the evening. In his early twenties he could already make a living from stage designing and began to paint seriously, portraits as well as landscapes and in 1831, Roberts went abroad for the first time, saw Spain and Northern Africa and returned with a portfolio full of drawings of local scenery and architecture as well as a few paintings – and no less a figure than J.M.W. Turner persuaded him afterwards to give up the stage and dedicate himself to full-time painting. Roberts did exactly that but fortunately continued to travel and toured Egypt and the Near East, a journey that took him two years and that would make his fame and fortune with the fascination for everything oriental in Europe and America in full swing. 

David Roberts: "Kom Ombo Nov 16th" (1838)

Travel broadens the mind and in Roberts’ case it did boost his funds and fame. After his return to Edinburgh, publishers tried to pry his sketches out of his hands, Roberts finally decided to sell the rights to Francis Moon who published his annotated works in 6 volumes with Queen Victoria being the first subscriber. His large exhibitions enjoyed an immense popularity as well and Roberts had got it made. During the 1850s, he visited Italy and returned with his “Italy, Classical, Historical and Picturesque“, published in 1859, an enormous success as well, and even though he had an unhappy marriage and was a bit of a loner during the rest of his life, he wrote to a friend not long before his death in 1864: “My only child is well and happy with the best of husbands, surrounded by a host of fine children. I am now enjoying the greatest of blessings, health! My foot is placed on the highest spoke of the artistic ladder and as yet without a rival in my own department. It would be strange indeed, if in my old age, with all these blessings, I did not feel happy." And indeed, David Roberts left the world with a gigantic catalogue of masterfully, if rather romantically transfigured views of people, landscapes and arts that might not be revolutionary in terms of art, but are still wonderful to behold.

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