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David Roberts, R.A. (1796-1864)
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David Roberts, R.A. (1796-1864)

Panorama of Cairo

David Roberts, R.A. (1796-1864)
Panorama of Cairo
signed and dated 'Cairo February 2d. 1839/David Roberts.' (lower left, fourth sheet) and further annotated with key 'No1. Mosque of Sultan Bargout./2. Mosque of Sultan Calaoon./3. Mosque of the Mooristan/4. Tomb of Sultan El. Ghoory/5. Mosque of Sultan El. Ghoory and further inscribed in pencil (lower right, on the fourth sheet)
pencil and watercolour heightened with touches of white, on four joined sheets
20½ x 118 in. (52 x 299.7 cm.)
David Roberts (+); Christie's, London, 13-15 May 1865, lot 418 as 'Panoramic view of Cairo, in four frames (235 242, 246, 251), and one unframed', £27 to Graves (on behalf of Henry Sanford Bicknell, Robert's son-in-law).
Henry Sanford Bicknell (+); Christie's, London, 7 April 1881, lot 81, 39 gns to Selfe.
Lady Selfe, née Ellen Bicknell, grand-daughter of the artist, and by descent in the family until 1975.
With The Fine Art Society, London, 1975.
Illustrated London News, 20 March 1847.
Gentleman's Magazine, 1847, p. 403.
To be illustrated in R. Upstone (ed.), forthcoming catalogue to accompany the Orientalist exhibition, Tate Britain, London, 2008.
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Lot Essay

This remarkable historical document was drawn by Roberts over a period of four days shortly before he left Cairo to continue his Eastern travels, through Sinai and into Syria and Palestine, and is in many respects a summation of his work in that city. He had arrived there in mid-December 1838 after two and a half months sailing along the Nile to Abu Simbel and back, and then spent nearly six weeks recording in considerable detail the city's geographical, architectural and human features. He was one of the first professional and independently funded artists to do this, and was fully aware of the artistic potential of his material: 'This is a city unequalled in the world for the picturesque and it is hitherto untrodden ground', he wrote in his journal on Christmas Eve. Over the next few weeks he explored the city, drawing and painting as many of the medieval monuments as he could, despite having to endure the discomfort of being jostled and stared at in the crowded streets. 'No one in looking over my Sketches will ever think of the pain and trouble I have had to contend with in collecting them', he wrote on 1 January 1839. 'Well so long as they add to the general knowledge already acquired of the various styles of architecture existing in different ages... I am well satisfied'. In addition, he obtained permission from the local authorities to make drawings inside the mosques, provided that he assumed Turkish dress and did not use pig's hair paint-brushes. This was a rare concession to a non-Muslim westerner, and reflects Roberts's determination to make as thorough an investigation of Cairo's Islamic monuments as was possible.
Before he attempted this ambitious panoramic view of Cairo, Roberts had already made several sketches of general views of the city, seen from a variety of vantage points outside the walls. Some of these he worked up, adding colour and definition to create dramatic effects and enhance their pictorial appeal. Three, each on a single sheet of paper, are known to survive, each one portraying a different aspect of the city. Of these, two are currently in public collections: Cairo, Looking West, recently acquired by the Morgan Library and Museum in New York (fig. 1), and Grand Cairo, a view from the other side of the city, acquired by Rodney Searight in the 1950s, and now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (fig. 2). By the time he undertook the more wide-ranging view seen here, extending across several sheets of paper, he had therefore already gained a good working knowledge of the city, insofar as a western visitor was able to achieve this.

For his previous images of Cairo, and indeed of Egypt generally, as also for the drawings of Syria and Palestine that he made when he continued his travels, he utilised the pictorial conventions of the time as well as his own previous experience as a stage scene painter to depict the ancient and medieval monuments with the maximum visual impact that he could achieve, sometimes to the detriment of topographical accuracy. On his return to England he used these drawings to create oil paintings, exhibited to great acclaim at the Royal Academy and elsewhere, as well as the lithographs, known collectively as The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia, published between 1842 and 1849, which made his work available to a larger public. One of the greatest painting ventures of the 19th Century, the lithographs remain the images on which his fame today still largely rests, romantic icons of the lands they depict.

The purpose of this extraordinary series of joined sketches, his last of Cairo, was very different to the other images that Roberts made on his long journey through the Near East. His aim now was to record as many of the monuments and features of the city as he could and to provide the materials for an all-embracing view of the city to be exhibited in London by the panorama proprietor, Robert Burford, at his famous Leicester Square rotunda. That this was Roberts' intention from the beginning is clear from his diary entry on 30 January: 'Today I commenced a Panoramic View of Cairo for my friend Burford. The day was hot'. The difficult conditions in which he had to work are made plain in the following day's entry: 'Continued the Panoramic view of Cairo - nearly blinded by the dust, the wind being from the South and blowing strongly. I think I can finish it in two more days and the subject is excellent'. Two days later he had achieved his object: 'Completed the drawing of Cairo, there being 4½ sheets. This is well for 4 days work'.

This small note of self-congratulation that Roberts allowed himself is something of an understatement when one considers what he had achieved in so short a time, working in such adverse conditions. As well as the heat and dust with which he had to contend, the stench and flies must have been considerable, for at times he was standing on years of accumulated mounds of rubbish outside the walls of the city. Working, presumably, from a series of consecutive vantage points, Roberts constructed a circular view that encompasses a great sweep from Bab al-Wazir Cemetery (with the Citadel above) down the length of the Darb al-Ahmar to the Bab Zuwayla and up the Qasaba or main North-South ceremonial route, to the Northern Cemetery and ending where he had started at the Bab al-Wazir Cemetery. In so doing he sketched all the major groups of monuments, both religious and secular, with a commendable degree of accuracy, each one at least recognisable for what it is, even if not all the details have been clearly defined and some not fully understood. The few errors do not detract from the overall achievement, since what Roberts has created is a coherent survey of medieval Cairo, located in real space and time. No longer is Cairo the place of the imagination, familiar only through the stories of the Bible and the Arabian Nights, but a city with an actual physical presence. Its domes and minarets are not hazy generic shapes, but individually identifiable, and in their entirety are evidence of the city's rich and plentiful architectural heritage. Roberts's tour de force can be appreciated even today from the al-Azhar Park, recently created on top of the medieval rubbish tips outside the walls, where the view of the monuments is exactly as he depicted it.

For the mid-nineteenth Century audience in London, for whom the Panorama was intended, the effect must have been astonishing. Roberts's drawings were transformed into a painting entirely in the round, viewed from a platform in the middle of the rotunda in Leicester Square. Opening in March 1847, the display was enthusiastically described by the Illustrated London News, and since it was 'painted from drawings made for the purpose by Mr David Roberts R.A., during his late journey in the East', it was 'a picture of superior pretentions as a work of art' and its 'architectural drawing ... minute yet picturesque'. The Cairo Panorama seems to have been one of the highlights of the numerous and spectacular displays with which Robert Burford thrilled his audiences during the 1830s and 1840s, and which included places and events of topical and patriotic interest, as well as exotic and far flung regions of the globe.

Roberts's panorama remained in his studio until his death, when it was bought from his studio sale by his son-in-law. After he died it it remained in the possession of various descendents until the 1970s, when it appeared on the art market. Not only is it a remarkable survivor of an age before photography, but a skilfully executed and wonderfully atmospheric view, still pertinent to modern-day Cairo.

We are grateful to Briony Llewellyn and Caroline Williams for their help in preparing this catalogue entry.


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