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'On each side towering rocks shut in the view of this approach to the city of the rock. A few figures are thrown in to show by comparison the height of the masses that rise over the rugged and winding path. In the distance a thin stream of water descends from one of the cliffs, and by a sinuous course finds its way down the ravine to the supposed position of the spectator. The foreground is in shadow, and contrasts well with the other parts of the picture, that are lighted by sun' The Art Union, July 1842, p.161.
Describing the painting that David Roberts exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1842, with the title Termination of the Ravine leading to Petra, or city of the Rock, the ancient capital of Arabia, Petrea, and the Edom of Scripture, (R.A. no.525), the critic of the influential journal, the Art Journal, was not alone in his admiration of this and other eastern subjects produced by the artist during the 1840s. During the decade 24 other paintings based on sketches that he had made during his recent travels in Egypt, Syria and Palestine were exhibited at the R.A. and recieved wide approbation; the same decade saw the publication of the monumental series of lithographs, The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt, & Nubia (6 vols, London, F.G. Moon, 1842-49) to universal acclaim. Thirteen of these lithographs (eventually contained in Volume III, 1849) depicted Petra, of which one, Petra (plate 104; in the later 1859 edition, titled The Ravine, Petra), shows a similar view to this painting. The accompanying text explains that this was 'taken from the Theatre, and represents the Excavations in the opposite cliffs; and the continuation of the chief eastern entrance to the City. The face of the rock is perforated in every accessible spot; and the prominent masses seems to have borne towers, and other defences of the pass'. The watercolour on which this lithograph was based was with Spink in 1986/87 (exhibited Spink and Sons, English Watercolour Drawings Annual Exhibition, 1987, cat. no.77).
Despite the apparently misleading date, which with the signature, may not be Roberts's hand, the title and the dimensions of the present oil painting, which are similar to earlier records, seem to suggest that this is his 1842 R.A. exhibit. This was exhibited again the following year at the Royal Scottish Academy (no.371), and it may have been this that promted Roberts to write of the painting to his friened D.R. Hay in Edinburgh: 'It is intended to represent our small caravan entering Wady Mooza or Petra - which with all my friends [sic] Louis Haghes talent in the Sketches, the latter convey but a faint idea of the wonders of that extraordinary valley' (19 January 1843, National Library of Scotland, Department of Manuscripts). Roberts exhibited no other oil of Petra and the only Petra subject listed by Ballantine, Robert's biographer, is the same painting, Termination of the Ravine leding to Petra (no. 114 in James Ballentine, The Life of David Roberts, R.A., Edinburgh, 1866, p.250). (Only one other oil of Petra by Roberts is recorded, exhibited at Agnews, Manchester, 1896, as Petra from the South, presumably the same view as the lithograph with a similar title). The only image of Petra that appears among the thumbnail sketches with which Roberts recorded his oil paintings is of his 1842 exhibit (Record Book, 1829-64, 2 vols, Yale Centre for British Art, Department of Rare Books and Archives). Though schematic, and scored through with lines as if he had changed his mind about the exact from of the composition, which varies slightly from the present oil, it is likely that this is the work presented. If this is the case, Roberts records that it was given to Elhanan Bickness, junior, the eldest son of Roberts's friend, the art patron, Elhanan Bicknell, senior, to whom it was transferred, for a sum left blank. It was subsequently sold by the executors of Bicknell senior, in the sale of his effects from his house in Herne Hill (Christie's 25 April 1863, lot 67), where it was bought by William Lloyd. The possibility must remain, however, that the present oil is another unrecorded version of the subject, executed by Roberts directly for a patron.
When Termination of the Ravine leading to Petra was exhibited at the R.A., it was accompanied by two quotations from the Bible. What most impressed the critics about this and Roberts's other views of biblical sites was the 'moral grandeur' and 'religious awe' that informed his work. Apart from the splendour of the ruins, set amidst magnificent scenery, it was the ancient city's links with the biblical Edom that drew 19th century visitors to Petra, many of whom meditated at length in their journals and letter on the eeriness and desolation of the site (see B. Llewellyn, 'The Real and the Ideal: Petra in the Minds and Eyes of Nineteeth-Century British and American Artist-Travellers' in G. Markoe, ed. Petra Rediscoverd, Cincinnati and New York, 2003). Roberts's reaction on his arrival on 6 March 1839 was by no means unusual:
'Situated in the midst of mountains and though surrounded by the desert abounding in every vegetable production the difficulty of access to it is so great that the curse seems to hang over it'. (this and the following quotations from Roberts's Eastern Journal, 1838-39. National Library of Scotland, Department of Manuscripts).
Despite the eulogies of previous visitors, Roberts had wondered whether Petra would be worth the considerable trouble of getting there but as he explored the site, his astonishment grew:
'I am more and more bewildered with the extent of this extraordinary city; not only the city which much be two miles in extent by nearly the same breadth, but every ravine has been inhabited, even the tops of the mountains. The valley itself has been filled with temples, public buildings, triumphal arches and bridges... Those of the buldings (or rather excavations in the rock) which remain are rent and worn away by time.'
Although the conditions at Petra were harsh and Roberts had to endure stormy weather and attacks from hostile tribesmen, he was able to spend five days sketching among the ruins. He later worked up numerous watercolours, the basis for the published lithographs, but his reason for attempting only two oils, at most, may have been his lack of confidence in his ability to convey the 'stupendous rocks', a feeling that many other artist-visitors to the site seem to have shared. His realisation that his painting did not entirely convey the awe inpired by the site may have inhibited further attempts with the brush. Nevertheless the painting is of enormous historical interest, not just for its possibly unique place in Roberts's oeuvre but also because it is the first known oil painting of Petra to have been produced in the West.