Living in Britain during the early 19th century, one didn’t get out much. It sounds glib, but Seattle art collector Ken Sheppard makes this important point in the forward of a new book about the 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 1800s was slow and difficult, he notes. Streets often were muddy, and unlit roads posed the threat of robbery. “Most people,” Sheppard writes, “never traveled more than fifteen miles from their birthplaces.” So it was unlikely that even someone from England’s upper classes would make the 2,000-mile trek across Europe, the Mediterranean Sea, and then up the Nile to visit Egypt. Or, say, a few hundred miles east from there, the Holy Land.
The context helps illustrate the power the images produced by Roberts — who did go to Egypt and the Holy Land — must have had on people with little knowledge of those places.
Visual cues would have been virtually nonexistent. Before the age of air travel and National Geographic, the public relied on travel writing to visit distant lands vicariously. Photos were not yet among the genre’s ingredients. In 1838, the year Roberts embarked on what would be a nine-month visit to the region, photography was in the embryonic stage in France; that was the year Louis Daguerre produced the first photograph to include people, View of the Boulevard du Temple. So 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 an enormous body of work: drawings, watercolors, and oil sketches. He arrived in Alexandria in September, and as he set out for Cairo early in December, he realized that in the previous month alone he’d produced more than 100 sketches, enough to keep him busy in a studio for a decade.
The exhibition David Roberts: Artist and Traveler runs through Aug. 27 at Hallie Ford, the art museum affiliated with Willamette University. It features 60 prints of the artist’s work, which were produced in collaboration with the renowned lithographer Louis Haghe. In a sense, the first people to see these pieces were getting two brands of new: The places and people depicted were new to European eyes, and they were rendered with new technology (lithography had been invented in 1798, two years after Roberts was born, by the German actor Alois Senefelder). It was common for artists to collaborate with a skilled lithographer, and Roberts met Haghe in 1837 when the latter worked on pieces Roberts produced while traveling in Spain.
Museum director John Olbrantz, working closely with Shepphard, organized the exhibition, and also wrote the elegant, 152-page monograph that accompanies the show. Both have proved popular with the public, with the show getting a mention in Archaeology magazine, and book sales have been brisk, both locally and overseas in the United Kingdom, Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
Roberts “traveled at a time when things looked very different,” Olbrantz said recently, telling the story of how he first encountered the artist. It was the late 1970s and he was curating a show of Egyptian art at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington that was timed to coincide with the King Tut exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum.
“At that time, I was reading everything I could about the 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 just captivated by Roberts’ imagery. He 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 may be seen in a glass case in the exhibition. “I spent many a weekend in special collections in the spring and summer of 1979 looking at this folio,” he said. “My wife, who was not my wife at the time, she was my girlfriend, sat there patiently watching me. I’m sure she was bored to death, but she was a good sport and sat there and watched me pore over these prints.”
As is frequently the case with visual art exhibitions, David Roberts: Artist and Traveler is a show that gestated for years before finding the proper place and time.
Olbrantz recounts the tale in the book’s preface, which includes an amusing anecdote about his own Howard Carter moment while rummaging through an in-law’s attic. 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 show and worked closely in curating it.
Early in his own David Roberts journey, Olbrantz found gold with the National Library of Scotland, which mailed him a copy of the journal the artist kept as he traveled. The original has been lost and the handwriting was reportedly terrible, but after Roberts’ death, his daughter faithfully transcribed and typed the travelogue. Excerpts flesh out the monograph and make for a narrative rich in historical and social context.
Olbrantz arranged the prints in the gallery so the visitor basically sees what Roberts saw in more or less the order he saw it. The prints are on loan from Sheppard and his wife, Linda. The show is also supplemented with watercolors on loan from the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut and The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. 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 fast Roberts must have worked during the 9-month trip, there’s a journalistic character to many of the images — get the story (or picture, in his case) and move on to the next. Nevertheless, each image is mesmerizing in its own way. In pieces such as Chapel of the Convent of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, one is struck by the rich detail. In others, such as Approach of the Simoon, Desert of Geezeh (Giza), Roberts captures a mood that seems to coalesce out of the color and 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 notes. “I have visited most of the scenes Roberts drew, and can say that without exception he caught not just the forms and shapes of the locations, but the spirit and feeling of the sites in a way that shines through even after the passage of 180 years.”
Two other artists merit mention here. To deepen the ambiance of the exhibition, Olbrantz secured permission from Indiana brothers and musicians Brandon and Derek Fiechter to use a piece of their music as an aural background for the show. “I wanted to create a mood for visitors to the exhibition,” Olbrantz said. “I wanted them to feel as if they were traveling through the Middle East by sailboat up the Nile or by camel through the desert.”
Two events in conjunction with the show remain on the calendar. Olbrantz will give a free talk at 12:30 p.m. Aug. 9 at the museum. On Aug. 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 famed opera Aida.