Maria Sibylla Merian
‘One of the richest folios that ever left the East’
David Roberts was an artist with ambition. Born in relative poverty outside Edinburgh, he spent years developing his skills as an apprentice and a jobbing artisan, graduating to a career painting backdrops for the theatre, first in Edinburgh and then in London’s Covent Garden and Drury Lane. By 1837, he had achieved renown for his landscape paintings of the Rhine and Spain. Unlike most artists, who relied on sketches brought back by other travellers, Roberts had visited these countries himself. His adventurous approach and his technical brilliance would serve him well on the journey of a lifetime – an artistic pilgrimage to Egypt and the Holy Land, the first ever undertaken by a British artist.
Roberts set off in August 1838, travelling from London to Marseilles and on to Alexandria. From there he began his journey up the Nile with a crew of six men. He was awestruck by the landscape – ‘I cannot express my feelings on seeing these vast monuments’ – and sketched the sights that caught his eye, whether a group of crocodiles or architectural wonders such as the Temples of Dendera and Karnak, and the pyramids of Gizeh, which reminded him of the ‘instability of all human greatness’. In Cairo, he determined to record modern buildings as well as ancient, and made sketches of minarets, alleys and market places. His observations remain among the few records we have of the early 19th-century city. Thanks to the intervention of the Viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, Roberts became one of the first Westerners ever to set foot in a mosque and sketch the interior, making sure to discard his hog’s-hair brushes before entering. Ultimately continuing as far south as Abu Simbel, Roberts produced over 100 sketches on his journey through Egypt: ‘We shall see what impression they make in England.’
Roberts next set his sights on Palestine. He travelled across the Sinai desert along the route thought to have been taken by the Israelites when they left Egypt for the Promised Land. He and his team rode camels, wore Turkish costume and carried pistols, rifles and sabres, as much as a disguise as for protection. They slept in tents under the stars and took shelter in the Monastery of St Catherine, where Roberts produced some of his most famous vistas of the Holy Land. Jerusalem was closed to visitors because of plague, but Roberts’s luck held and he was able to enter during Holy Week, along with a throng of pilgrims from all over the world: Syrians, Armenians, Copts and Greek Orthodox, ‘a vast congregation gathered by one powerful impulse to do homage to the most awe-filled place of recollection on the globe’. For Roberts, it was a memorable culmination to an extraordinary voyage. As well as having visited biblical sites from the Mount of Olives to Jericho, he had assembled, as he put it, ‘one of the richest folios that ever left the East’.
David Roberts was the first British painter to make an artistic expedition to Egypt and the Holy Land. The result of his travels was a picturesque vision of the Near East that has been hugely influential ever since. Nearly 200 years later, his work is held in institutions such as the Library of Congress in Washington and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. This new Folio Society limited edition reproduces all 247 of his lithographs for the first time on this scale.
On his return to London, Roberts sought a publisher for his work, eventually signing a contract with Francis G. Moon for £3,000 – an enormous sum, the equivalent of over £200,000 today. Critics and the public lined up to praise Roberts’s works when they were first exhibited. The press lauded the aesthetic quality of his art, its historical and topographical accuracy, and the grandeur of its subject matter. Publication of the first edition was a slow and enormously expensive process. It was printed in sections, each one containing six hand-coloured lithographs created from the original drawings. But Moon’s investment paid off. There was no shortage of subscribers, with Queen Victoria (to whom the Holy Land series is dedicated) and Charles Dickens among those reserving a set. Roberts’s pictures had caught the imagination of the British public and set a trend for Orientalism in art that would continue to shape the way in which the West perceived the East. Because of its scale, and the scarcity of complete first editions, Roberts’s work has rarely been reproduced in its entirety and never before on this scale. In this Folio Society limited edition, all 247 lithographs have been reproduced from one of the few complete hand-coloured copies, held at the John Rylands Library in Manchester.
Only 1,000 numbered copies of this edition will be produced for sale.
Delivery of limited editions may take longer than standard editions. Please contact us for more information.
Roberts’s books have a complicated printing history, but unquestionably the finest are the hand-coloured copies of the first edition. Roberts entrusted the lithography to Louis Haghe, whose work is notable for his subtle use of shadow and illumination, and the hand-colouring of the plates was carried out under his supervision. Roberts was delighted with the results, and said that ‘there can be only one opinion as to the masterly manner in which [Haghe] executed his work’.
When we began work on our own publication, the first challenge was to locate a complete hand-coloured copy. Very few have survived intact, in part because the plates are so beautiful that many copies have been broken up and the plates sold individually. After visits to several different institutions, we finally found a magnificent copy in the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, complete in seven vast volumes.
The Rylands set is in extremely good condition, but nonetheless it suffers from the foxing or blotching which afflicts so many books of this period; to eliminate this, the photographer Michael Pollard carried out meticulous retouching to remove the stains, a highly skilled process that took several months to complete. Finally, in order to match the colours perfectly, many trips up and down to Manchester were made to check proofs against the original. The patience and expertise of everyone involved has been rewarded with an edition that we believe is the closest possible to Roberts’s original work.
The original volumes are immense and extremely heavy, making them all but impracticable to handle. We took the view that a more manageable set of books would be appreciated by our members, so we slightly reduced the size and removed unnecessary blank leaves. Aside from this, everything inside the books is exactly as it first appeared. These are still substantial volumes and in order to preserve their shape, the endpapers have been reinforced with cloth hinges, and the slipcases contain raised insets to support the text pages.
It has been a privilege to work with Editoriale Bortolazzi in Verona, a rarity among printers nowadays in that they limit themselves to printing fine art, architecture and photography books, and as a result, print them extremely well. Bortolazzi have managed this project with impeccable attention to detail and artistic flair, well justifying their world-wide reputation.
Our aim, in this edition, is to do justice to the work of David Roberts, an artistic genius with an adventurous spirit. His work is characterised by a genuine interest in the people he met and a fascination with the places he visited. We hope that you will enjoy travelling with him on his picturesque journey.
Review by david_malcolm on 23rd Mar 2014
"Having previously been an admirer of the work of David Roberts, when I saw that The Folio Society was producing his most famous works, despite the highish price, I deemed I must have them. I agree wit..." [read more]
Review by anon on 8th Nov 2012
"The illustrations are indeed superb, & the monumental scale of the volumes impressive. But the visual design of the binding, while laudable for historical authenticity, is an aesthetic disappointment...." [read more]
Review by wjcarter on 6th Sep 2012
"Exquisitely detailed artwork superbly presented. Every page could be framed and hung in a gallery. Comparing the artwork with modern photos of places that still exist (eg. Damascus Gate in Jerusalem) ..." [read more]