Living in Britain at the start of the 19th century, we didn’t go out much. Sounds flippant, but Seattle art collector Ken Shepard 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 in Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem.
Travel in Europe in the 1800s was slow and difficult, he notes. The streets were often muddy and the unlit roads posed a threat of theft. “Most people,” writes Sheppard, “have never traveled more than fifteen miles from their birthplace.” It was therefore unlikely that even someone from the upper classes of England would make the 2,000 mile journey through Europe, the Mediterranean Sea, and then up the Nile to visit Egypt. Or, say, a few hundred miles east of there, the Holy Land.
The context helps illustrate the power of the images produced by Roberts – which did going to Egypt and the Holy Land — must have weighed on people who knew little about these places.
Visual clues would have been virtually non-existent. Before the era of air travel and National Geographic, the public relied on travel writing to visit distant lands vicariously. Photos were not yet part of the ingredients of the genre. In 1838, the year Roberts began what was to be a nine-month visit to the region, photography was in its infancy in France; it was the year when Louis Daguerre produced the first photograph including people, View of the Boulevard du Temple. Thus, publishers of the increasingly popular literary genre relied on artists such as Roberts to illustrate their publications. Roberts traveled in Egypt and the Holy Land – by boat, camel and on foot – drawing and painting what he saw.
He produced a colossal body of work: drawings, watercolors and oil sketches. He arrived in Alexandria in September and, as he left for Cairo in early December, he found that in the previous month alone he had produced over 100 sketches, enough to keep him busy. in a studio for a decade.
The exhibition David Roberts: artist and traveler runs through August 27 at Hallie Ford, the art museum affiliated with Willamette University. It presents 60 prints of the artist’s work, which were made in collaboration with the famous lithographer Louis Haghé. In a sense, the first people to see these coins received two novelties: the places and people depicted were new to Europeans, and they were rendered with new technology (lithography had been invented in 1798, two years after the birth of Roberts., by German actor Alois Senefelder). It was common for artists to collaborate with a skilled lithographer, and Roberts met Haghe in 1837 when the latter was working on pieces produced by Roberts during a trip to Spain.
Museum director John Olbrantz, working closely with Shepphard, curated the exhibition and also wrote the elegant, 152-page monograph that accompanies the show. Both proved popular with audiences, with the show being featured in Archeology magazine, and book sales were brisk both locally and overseas in the UK, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Roberts “traveled to a time when things seemed very different,” Olbrantz said recently, recounting how he first met the artist. It was at the end of the 1970s and he was organizing an exhibition of Egyptian art at the Bellevue Art Museum in Washington which was to coincide with the King Tut exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum.
“At that time, I was reading everything I could about history, and I came across a book by a writer named Brian Fagan called The Rape of the Nile,” he said. “In the book, there were several illustrations by David Roberts, and I was captivated by the images of Roberts. It just seemed to capture what Egypt must have been like during the first half of the 19th century, with great precision and clarity.
Later, Olbrantz discovered the Seattle Public Library had Roberts The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia folios in its special collections. The folios are visible in a window of the exhibition. “I spent many weekends in special collections in the spring and summer of 1979 looking at this folio,” he said. “My wife, who wasn’t my wife at the time, she was my girlfriend, was sitting there watching me patiently. I’m sure she was bored to death, but she was a good player and sat there and watched me bend over those footprints.
As is often the case with visual art exhibitions, David Roberts: artist and traveler is a show that gestated for years before finding the right place and the right time.
Olbrantz tells the story in the preface to the book, which includes a fun anecdote about his own Howard Carter moment while rummaging through the attic of an in-laws. He tracked down as much of the artist’s work as he could and eventually connected with Sheppard, with whom he conceived the idea for the exhibition and worked closely to organize it.
At the start of his own David Roberts journey, Olbrantz struck gold with the National Library of Scotland, who sent him a copy of the diary the artist kept during his travels. The original has been lost and the writing would have been terrible, but after Roberts’ death his daughter faithfully transcribed and typed the travelogue. Excerpts flesh out the monograph and form 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 he saw it. The prints are on loan from Sheppard and his wife, Linda. The exhibition is also completed by watercolors lent by the Yale British Art Center in Connecticut and The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. Even without purchasing the $45 book, the visitor can both linger over the images and get much of Roberts’ story in the meaty title cards.
Given how quickly Roberts had to work during the 9-month trip, there’s a journalistic nature to many of the images – get the story (or the image, in his case) and move on to the next one. Nevertheless, each image is fascinating in its own way. In pieces like Chapel of Saint Catherine’s Convent on Mount Sinai, we are struck by the richness of the details. In others, like Approach to Simoon, Geezeh (Giza) DesertRoberts captures a mood that seems to merge from color and the play of light and shadow.
“It is often said that a good work of art can transport the viewer to a different time and place,” Sheppard writes in the show’s notes. “I have visited most of the scenes drawn by Roberts, and can say that without exception he has captured not only the shapes and forms of the places, but the spirit and feeling of the sites in a way that shines through even after the passage of 180 years.”
Two other artists are worth mentioning here. To deepen the mood of the exhibit, Olbrantz obtained permission from the Indiana Brothers and Musicians Brandon and Derek Fiechter to use a piece of their music as background music for the show. “I wanted to create a mood for visitors to the exhibit,” Olbrantz said. “I wanted them to feel like they were traveling through the Middle East on a sailboat on the Nile or on camels through the desert.”
Two events related to the show remain on the calendar. Olbrantz will give a free talk at 12:30 p.m. on August 9 at the museum. On August 11, the historian Allen James Fromherz will present Egyptomania: from David Roberts to the opera “Aïda” 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.