When you lived in Britain in the early 19th century, you didn’t get out much. It sounds superficial, but Seattle art collector Ken Sheppard makes this important point in the foreword to a new book about self-taught Scottish painter David Roberts, whose work currently fills the Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem.
Travel in Europe in the 19th century was slow and difficult, he notes. The streets were often muddy, and unlit streets pose a risk of robberies. “Most people,” writes Sheppard, “never traveled more than fifteen miles from their birthplaces.” Thus it was unlikely that even upper-class English people would make the 2,000-mile trek through Europe, the Mediterranean, and then up the Nile would do to visit Egypt. Or, say, a few hundred miles east of there, the Holy Land.
The context illustrates the power of Roberts – who’s images did going to Egypt and the Holy Land – must have afflicted people with little knowledge of these places.
Visual cues would have been virtually non-existent. Before the age of air travel and National Geographic, the public relied on travelogues to vicariously visit distant lands. Photos were not yet part of the genre’s ingredients. In 1838, the year Roberts set out on a nine-month visit to the region, photography was still in its infancy in France; that was the year that Louis Daguerre produced the first photograph with people, View of the Boulevard du Temple. As a result, publishers of the increasingly popular literary genre relied on artists like Roberts to illustrate their publications. Roberts traveled through Egypt and the Holy Land—by boat, camel, and on foot—drawing and painting what he saw.
He created an enormous body of work: drawings, watercolors and oil sketches. He arrived in Alexandria in September and when he left for Cairo in early December found that he had made more than 100 sketches in the previous month alone, enough to keep him busy in a studio for a decade.
The exhibition David Roberts: Artist and Traveller runs through August 27 at Hallie Ford, Willamette University’s art museum. It shows 60 prints of works by the artist, which were created in collaboration with the renowned lithographer Louis Haghe. In a way, the first people to see these pieces received two marks anew: the places and people depicted were new to European eyes, and they were rendered using new technology (lithography was invented in 1798, two years after Robert’s birth, des German actor Alois Senefelder). It was common for artists to work with an experienced lithographer, and Roberts met Haghe in 1837 while the latter was working on pieces Roberts was producing while traveling in Spain.
Museum director John Olbrantz, in close collaboration with Shepphard, organized the exhibition and also wrote the elegant 152-page monograph that accompanies the exhibition. Both have proved popular with audiences, with the show being featured in Archeology magazine, and book sales have been brisk, both domestically and internationally in the UK, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Roberts “travelled at a time when things were very different,” Olbrantz said recently, sharing the story of how he first met the artist. It was the late 1970s and he was curating an exhibition of Egyptian art at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington to coincide with the King Tut exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum.
“At the time I was reading everything I could about the story and came across a book by a writer named Brian Fagan called That Rape of the Nile,” he said. “There were several illustrations by David Roberts in the book and I was just fascinated by Roberts’ imagery. He seemed to capture with great precision and clarity what Egypt must have been like in the first half of the 19th century. “
Olbrantz later discovered that the Seattle Public Library had Roberts’ The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia Leaves in his special collections. The sheets can be seen in a showcase in the exhibition. “I spent many weekends in Special Collections looking at this folio during the spring and summer of 1979,” he said. “My wife, who wasn’t my wife at the time, she was my friend, sat patiently and watched me. I’m sure she was bored to death, but she was a good athlete and she sat and watched me poring over those prints.”
As is so often the case with exhibitions of fine arts, David Roberts: Artist and Traveller is a show that has matured for years before finding the right place and time.
Olbrantz tells the story in the book’s foreword, which includes an amusing anecdote about his own Howard Carter moment when he was digging through an in-law’s attic. He sought out as much of the artist’s work as possible and eventually connected with Sheppard, with whom he conceived the idea for the exhibition and worked closely on its curation.
Early on in his own David Roberts journey, Olbrantz found gold at the National Library of Scotland, which sent him a copy of the artist’s diary on his travels. The original has been lost and the handwriting was reportedly terrible, but after Robert’s death his daughter faithfully transcribed and typed the travelogue. Excerpts complement the monograph, making for a narrative rich in historical and social context.
Olbrantz arranged the prints in the gallery so that the visitor essentially sees what Roberts saw, more or less in the order in which they saw it. The prints are on loan from Sheppard and his wife Linda. The exhibition is also complemented by watercolors on loan from the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut and the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. Even without purchasing the $45 book, the visitor can linger over both the images and get much of Roberts’ story into the fleshy title cards.
Considering how quickly Roberts must have worked during the 9 month journey, many of the images have a journalistic character – grab the story (or the image in his case) and move on to the next. Nevertheless, each picture fascinates in its own way. For pieces such as Chapel of the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, one notices the richness of detail. For others, such as Approach of Simoon, Desert of Geezeh (Giza)Roberts captures a mood that seems to condense from the color and play of light and shadow.
“It’s often said that a good work of art can transport the viewer to another time and place,” Sheppard writes in the show notes. “I have visited most of the scenes Roberts drew and I can say that without exception he not only captured the shapes and outlines of the places, but also the spirit and feel of the places in a way that still shines through 180 years later .”
Two other artists deserve mention here. To deepen the atmosphere of the exhibit, Olbrantz secured permission from Indiana brothers and musicians Brandon and Derek Fiechter to use a piece of their music as the show’s acoustic background. “I wanted to create a mood for visitors to the exhibition,” Olbrantz said. “I wanted them to feel like they were traveling up the Nile on a sailboat or across the desert in the Middle East on a camel.”
Two events related to the show remain on the calendar. Olbrantz will be giving a free talk at the museum on August 9 at 12:30 p.m. On August 11, historian Allen James Fromherz will present Egyptomania: From David Roberts to the opera “Aida” at 7 p.m. in the Paulus Lecture Hall (Room 201) at Willamette University College of Law, 245 Winter St. SE, Salem. European-trained opera singer Rebecca Fromherz, a 2014 Willamette graduate, will sing two arias from Verdi’s famous opera Aida.