Roberts executed six large oil paintings of Jerusalem from viewpoints on the hills outside the city. The present example is one of the most impressive in the series. The number and ambitious scope of Roberts’ Jerusalem paintings reflect the keen interest with which his Victorian public viewed images of the Holy City. As one critic remarked in his review of the 1845 exhibit at the Royal Academy, ‘The Jerusalem … seems his most popular landscape, possibly owing to the subject, which will never cease to be sought for with eager and reverential curiosity’ (The Athenaeum, 17 May 1845, p. 496). Since Jerusalem remains a holy site for Christians, Muslims and Jews alike, this sentiment is as pertinent today as it was more than a century and a half ago.
Roberts’ Jerusalem oils range in date from 1841, shortly after he returned from his ground-breaking journey to the Near East, to 1860, four years before his death. Of these, four are taken from the Mount of Olives, to the east of the city. The first, painted for Lord Monson, was exhibited to great acclaim at the Royal Academy in 1841 (no. 399; now at Royal Holloway College, Egham), being hailed as ‘A chef-d’oeuvre of the Artist; realising a scene linked with so many gloomy and glorious associations – the city that “sits solitary”; that was great “among the nations”…. (Art Union, 1841, p. 79). The second, a smaller version, was painted in 1842 for the Revd W.B. Hurnard (fig. 1, now at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery). Two further versions were executed in 1855 (Government Art Collection) and 1860 (New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester), both on paper laid down on canvas, apparently painted over an unfinished mezzotint made by David Lucas of the 1841 painting. In 1845, Roberts exhibited a further Jerusalem subject at the Royal Academy (no. 405) which was described in the catalogue as from the ‘south east – the Mount of Olives … taken from the lower part of what by tradition is still called “The Hill of Offence”… showing the site of the Temple on Mount Moriah’ (A. Graves, ‘Royal Academy Exhibitors’, vol. XI, 1906); commissioned by Lord Francis Egerton, later 1st Earl of Ellesmere, this is now in a private collection (fig. 2). Although similar in the viewpoints from which they were taken, each of these paintings are different in detail and mood, for, as his biographer, James Ballantine remarked, ‘he always varied his figures and the effect of light and shade, so that … no two are alike’ (J. Ballantine, 1866, p. 254).
The present painting, however, differs substantially from the others, since it is the only one to be taken from a point further south, above the Kidron Valley, looking towards the southern end of Temple Mount and the old city in the middle distance. Prominent in the foreground is a group of pilgrims, offering up prayers. As Roberts had explained in the 1841 RA catalogue, ‘During Easter, Christian pilgrims from all parts of the East assemble at Jerusalem, from whence, accompanied by the Governor, and escorted by a strong guard, they proceed in a body to bathe in the river Jordan’. A comparison with the watercolour view that Roberts later made from the drawing that he had taken on the spot during his visit at Easter 1839 (fig. 3, Jerusalem from the South, signed and dated David Roberts April 12th 1839; private collection; see G. Naughton, David Roberts Travels in the Holy Land, The Old House Foundation, 2013, pl. 19, pp. 58-59, 99; in lithograph in The Holy Land …, 1842, vol. 1, [pl. 10]), reveals how much he has added to the scene to enhance its dramatic interest. In the watercolour there are few figures and the focus is on the bleak, rocky landscape of the Kidron Valley; the oil painting, by contrast, has been enlivened with colourful figures placed on a platform of carved stone, behind which, and separating them from the view beyond, is the suitably picturesque foliage of a date palm and a gnarled old olive tree. This combination of narrative incident, ancient monuments and distant hills, all suffused in the expansive glow of a serene and mellow light, was employed by Roberts with great success in many of his landscape subjects, and it was a formula on which he had built his considerable reputation. The evocation of past grandeur and romantic decay is as effective in this late work as it had been throughout his career.
Roberts arrived at Jerusalem in late March and April 1839. He visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and witnessed the Palm Sunday procession. The travellers then left the city for Jericho, the Dead Sea and Bethlehem, returning to Jerusalem on 8th April. Roberts spent the following week making numerous fine drawings, both within and outside the city, which provided rich material for the finished watercolours and oil paintings of Jerusalem that he executed on his return to England.
As the first independent, professional British artist to travel so extensively in Egypt and the Holy Land, Roberts knew that he was returning with 'one of the richest folios that ever left the East' (Journal, 29 January 1838). He was confident that his Victorian public would find irresistible the combination of famous ancient monuments, elaborate Islamic mosques and the landscapes of the Holy Land, redolent of the scenes and events of the Bible, and so it proved, for not only did his oil paintings receive critical acclaim, but when the 247 coloured lithographs executed by Louis Haghe from Roberts’s drawings were published in a series of monthly parts, between 1842 and 1849, they too were a resounding success. Collectively titled The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia (London, 6 vols, 1842-49), when they appeared in bound volumes, the publication was a hugely ambitious venture: nothing before had presented so comprehensive a series of views of the people and places of the Near East. The reviews were enthusiastic: it was acclaimed ‘a noble and beautiful work…foremost of the productions of the age and country’ (Art-Union, 1842, p. 15) and ‘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 has been described as ‘one of the most important and elaborate ventures of nineteenth-century publishing and … the apotheosis of the tinted lithograph’ (J. R. Abbey, Travel in aquatint and lithography, 1770-1860, London, 1956-57, vol. 2, p. 341). To this day, the plates remain widely known in both East and West, romantic icons of the lands they depict.
David Roberts epitomised the successful topographical artist of the early and mid-19th century in Britain, of whom there were many, but few who travelled as extensively and so far afield as he did. Unlike artists who had preceded him, he was not accompanying or supported by a wealthy patron, and nor was he sent by a publisher of the numerous illustrated travel books that were then appearing. His journey represents a new type of tour for professional artists who could travel to Egypt and the Holy Land in the knowledge that the novelty and biblical associations of their subjects would resonate strongly with their public and find a ready market. Many artists, encouraged by his success, followed in his footsteps.
Roberts’ achievement is aptly summarised by his friend, the novelist and witty essayist, William Makepeace Thackeray:
‘Mr Roberts has visited at least three of the quarters of the globe, and brought away likenesses of their cities and people in his portfolio. He travelled for years in Spain; he set up his tent in the Syrian desert; he has sketched the spires of Antwerp, the peaks of Lebanon, the rocks of Calton Hill, the towers and castles that rise by the Rhine; the airy Cairo minarets, the solemn Pyramids and vast Theban columns, and the huts under the date-trees along the banks of the Nile.
Can any calling be more pleasant than that of such an artist? The life is at once thoughtful and adventurous; gives infinite variety and excitement, and constant opportunity for reflection. As one looks at the multifarious works of this brave and hardy painter, whose hand is the perfect and accomplished slave of his intellect, and ready, like a Genius in an Eastern tale, to execute the most wonderful feats and beautiful works with the most extraordinary rapidity, any man who loves adventure himself must envy the lucky mortal whose lot it is to enjoy it in such a way. … Oh happy painter!’ (The men of the time in 1852: or, Sketches of living notables …, London, 1852, p.875).
We are grateful to Briony Llewellyn for her help in providing this catalogue entry.