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  David Roberts (1796–1864), by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, 1844 David Roberts (1796–1864), by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, 1844
Roberts, David (1796–1864), artist, was born on 24 October 1796 at a house in Church Lane, Stockbridge, near Edinburgh, and baptized on 23 November 1796 at St Cuthbert's Church, Canongate, Edinburgh, the eldest of the five children of John Roberts (1754–1840), shoemaker, and his wife, Christian (1758/9–1845), daughter of Alexander Ritchie of St Andrews, mariner, and his wife, Ann. His father came from a farming family of Forfar and his mother had been a laundress in domestic service. They struggled financially in Roberts's early years: three of his siblings died in childhood, and as demand for new shoes lessened his father ‘became … little else than a mere cobler’, so his mother ‘eeked out his little income (by taking in washing)’ (Roberts, memoir, 13). When aged about eight Roberts attended a local school for a short time, ‘learning to write and a very small smatering of arithmetic’ (ibid., 8).

Early years

A love of pictures had been kindled before this by ‘the halfpenny picture books of that time’ and ‘the Shows that came occasionally to the Earthen Mound [in Edinburgh]’, a battle of Trafalgar scene making a particular impression (Roberts, memoir, 14). Roberts copied these and other images at home, showing an innate talent for drawing. This led his parents to consider Roberts's apprenticeship to a herald painter and, following advice from John Graham, master of the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh, to a house-painter. At ten and a half Roberts was apprenticed for seven years to the Edinburgh house-painter Gavin Beugo (fl. 1806–1822). Beugo had a number of apprentices, who sketched in their spare time and sometimes staged exhibitions. Among them was the writer on art David Ramsay Hay (1798–1866), with whom Roberts remained friendly and corresponded throughout his life. Roberts became skilled at decorative effects imitating various stones and wood grains.

On completing his apprenticeship Roberts worked for a Mr Conway on the decoration of Scone Palace, Perthshire, in 1815. He returned to Edinburgh early in 1816 at the request of his parents. There he was introduced to James Bannister, who presented entertainments at The Circus in Nicholson Street, Edinburgh, and planned to set up a touring ‘company of pantomimists’. He painted a trial scene with which Bannister was so pleased that he proposed engaging Roberts as regular scene-painter to the company. Although his parents did not want him to leave, ‘Here was an opportunity of seeing England, and to follow the bent of my mind in drawing pictures on a large scale, which might lead to something even better’ (Roberts, record book, 1.1). In April 1816 he signed a twelve-month agreement with Bannister. This included a requirement ‘to make himself useful therein’, which later transpired to include acting. The strolling company travelled to Carlisle, Newcastle, Hull, and York. Roberts gained plenty of experience at scene-painting. He also sketched landscape and buildings, especially at York and Beverley, and gained valuable insight from the painted scenery of others, notably Cornelius Dixon (fl. 1783–1821), who ‘with the exception of “Old Philips” [fl. 1789–1817] of Covent Garden—was unquestionably the best painter of architectural Scenery in England’ (Roberts, record book, 1.6). The company returned to Edinburgh in January 1817 to open a new circus and theatre there, The Pantheon, a joint venture between Bannister and Montagu Corri. Poor attendance brought the season, and Roberts's employment, to an end in May.

Roberts returned to house-painting in Perth, but came back to Edinburgh at his mother's request and after an offer of work from John Jackson, who engaged Roberts as a journeyman painter in November 1817. The following spring he painted at Dunbar House, and in the summer returned to Edinburgh, work there including decorative effects at Craigcrook Castle. In July 1818 he was engaged as scene-painter by Corri for the reopened Edinburgh Pantheon. His scenery there impressed the stage manager, Mason, who arranged for Roberts to transfer in 1819 to the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. There Roberts was impressed by the stock scenery of Alexander Nasmyth (1758–1840), later claiming it formed the basis of his style.

On 3 July 1820 Roberts married the beautiful Margaret McLachlan (d. 1860), ‘like a true painter for pure love’ (Roberts, record book, 1.18). Her mother had died when she was very young and her father, James McLachlan, had then married a widow, Mrs Campbell Rudall, who brought her up after her father's early death. She was living with relatives in Glasgow when Roberts met her. Their only child, Christine, was born on 4 June 1821.

When not paid as expected, Roberts left the Glasgow theatre in October 1820 and returned to Edinburgh, to work as a scene-painter at the Theatre Royal, where he met Clarkson Stanfield (1793–1867). His work and reputation as a scene-painter grew. Encouraged by Stanfield, Roberts also submitted an oil painting to the spring exhibition of the Fine Arts Institution, Edinburgh, but the painting was rejected. In spring 1822 Roberts tried again with three pictures; all were accepted and two depicting Edinburgh scenes were sold. That summer he was invited to London by William Barrymore, of the Royal Coburg Theatre, who had seen Roberts's scenery in Edinburgh and recommended him to R. W. Elliston of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Move to London

Elliston signed an agreement with Roberts in October 1822 to begin at Drury Lane on 1 January 1823; Roberts had felt obliged to give notice and produce sufficient scenery for the winter season in Edinburgh. The journey to London, along with his furniture, took three weeks, and by the time he arrived circumstances at Drury Lane had changed, with Stanfield employed there scene-painting alongside Gaetano Marinari. Roberts felt that he was given ‘the refuse of both the others’ (Roberts, record book, 1.26) and, while continuing his work in the theatre, began to turn serious attention to easel painting, a move strengthened by the formation in 1823 of the Society of British Artists, which organized exhibitions at premises in Suffolk Street. He became one of the first members of the artist-run society, then treasurer in 1829, vice-president in 1830, and president in 1831, remaining a member until June 1835, when he resigned in order to be considered for admission to the Royal Academy.

Roberts brought his wife and daughter to London in 1823, returning to Edinburgh during Drury Lane's vacation to paint scenery. In 1824 he exhibited for the first time a painting at the British Institution, ‘a very small Picture’ that ‘was hung low and could not have been observed by any one unless pointed out’ (Roberts, record book, 1.30), and three paintings at the Society of British Artists, all of which sold. He was then living at 24 Elliotts Row, Newington.

European travels

That autumn Roberts travelled to France with his friend John (Jock) Wilson (1774–1858), visiting Dieppe, Rouen, and Le Havre. His sketches of Rouen Cathedral were used for a painting exhibited at the Society of British Artists in 1825, which sold to Sir Felix Booth and so impressed Lord Northwick that he commissioned a replica, which in 1826 was Roberts's first exhibit at the Royal Academy. Roberts made further sketching trips to France in 1825, 1828, and 1829, and to Belgium in 1826. These and Scottish subjects provided material for pictures of church or ruin exteriors and interiors, exhibited at the Society of British Artists and British Institution annually from 1825 to 1832, and at the Royal Academy in 1827 and 1830. The paintings received favourable notices and sold well, many being made to commission. In 1829 he exhibited a more ambitious work, Departure of the Israelites (Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery), which was compared by some reviewers to the work of John Martin.

During 1825 Roberts moved to 18 Mount Street, Lambeth, and thence to 8 Abingdon Street, Westminster, in 1829. He continued to paint scenery, in collaboration and competition with his friend Stanfield, with whom his name was usually linked in public reputation in this field. In 1826 their rivalry and other practical reasons prompted him to accept an invitation to move to Covent Garden, where he gained particular renown in 1827 for his scenery to Mozart's Il seraglio and a Grand panoramic naumachia. He also painted scenery and a diorama for the Dublin Theatre Royal, and, with Stanfield, diorama scenes for the Queen's Bazaar, London, and a Panorama of the Bombardment of Algiers, which was shown in Liverpool, Holland, and Germany. A similar production of the Battle of Navarino toured to Germany, Holland, and Hull. Many of the subjects for his scenery and panoramas are known from playbills and advertisements, but little visual record remains, including only one known original design (British Museum). In 1830 Roberts painted his last scenery, for the Edinburgh Theatre Royal and Covent Garden. Despite at least one other request (for Her Majesty's Theatre in 1846), his only later theatrical work was the act-drop for one of Charles Dickens's amateur productions—a play by Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, Not so Bad as we Seem, in 1851. But his travel drawings were used by others as a basis for scenery and panoramas from the 1840s to the 1860s.

Roberts was quick to see the potential of reproducing his sketches as prints, to reach a wider audience. He reworked sketches made on visits to Scotland for a set of etchings that he hoped to publish. Following a Rhine tour in 1830 he worked on illustrations that formed the basis of Bulwer Lytton's Pilgrims of the Rhine (1834). Roberts also made illustrations for various editions of works by Sir Walter Scott (1832–4).

An extended visit to Spain in 1832–3 resulted in a quantity of drawings that were reproduced as prints in illustrated volumes of the Landscape Annual (1835–8), and Picturesque Sketches in Spain (1837). The prints (both authorized and pirated copies) brought him widespread fame and popularity, and are still sold as souvenirs to this day; the watercolours and oils, such as The Moorish Tower at Seville (1834; priv. coll.), found critical acclaim and rapid sale. Roberts had set out in August 1832 and travelled through France to Spain, reaching Madrid via Burgos, then going to Córdoba, Granada, Gibraltar, Jérez, and Seville, returning to England in October 1833. He was living in London at 22 Howland Street, Fitzroy Square, towards the end of 1833, and moved to 24 Mornington Place in 1834. During this time Roberts worked on numerous other illustrations for reproduction as prints, including Indian and biblical views based on sketches made by other people, and Scottish, French, and Rhine subjects.

Public success

Roberts's interest in architecture extended to campaigning for preservation of important remains such as John Knox's house in Edinburgh and Roslin Chapel, near the city, colouring perspectives for architects, and even designing buildings. In 1834 he was asked to submit a design for a monument to Sir Walter Scott and sent two proposals, later submitting further designs to the open competition. He was invited to help with the decoration of the new Palace of Westminster, and in 1857 to judge competition entries for the new War and Foreign offices in Whitehall. About 1856 he made designs for a new National Gallery, when a royal commission was debating a possible site. He numbered architects such as Sir Charles Barry among his many friends and acquaintances; they included Dickens, Eastlake, Ruskin, Thackeray, Turner, Wilkie, and numerous patrons and collectors. The latter came to include Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who commissioned paintings of the Crystal Palace opening from Roberts, as well as other works. Roberts was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1838, and a full member in 1841. He served on the council of the Royal Academy in 1842–3, 1851–2, and 1859–60, and was on the hanging committee in 1842–3, 1852, 1859, 1860, and 1862.

Visit to the Near East

Acceptance into the ranks of the Royal Academy came at a time when Roberts fulfilled an ambition ‘from earliest boyhood, to visit the remote East’ (Roberts, record book, 1.108), leaving London in August 1838 for Paris and thence travelling via Alexandria to Cairo, before visiting the pyramids at Giza. Hiring a cangia, he sailed up the Nile as far as Abu Simbel, stopping on his return north to sketch temples and ancient sites such as Philae, Karnak, Luxor, and Dendera. Back in Cairo he drew its streets and mosques before departing for Syria and Palestine in February 1839. He travelled through Sinai to Petra and thence north, via Hebron and Jaffa, to Jerusalem. From there he made an excursion to the Jordan, the Dead Sea, and Bethlehem and, after spending a further week in Jerusalem, he continued north, visiting many places associated with the Bible, before exploring Baalbek. He sailed for England from Beirut in May 1839, was quarantined in Malta, and returned to London in July. He was the first independent, professional British artist to travel so extensively in the Near East, and brought back 272 sketches, a panorama of Cairo, and three full sketchbooks, enough material to ‘serve me for the rest of my life’ (Roberts, eastern journal, 28 Jan 1839).

Over the next decade Roberts made ‘a serries of intire new drawings’ for the 247 large coloured lithographs executed by Louis Haghe for The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia (1842–9). No publication before this had presented so comprehensive a series of views of the monuments, landscape, and people of the Near East. Roberts was to paint more oils of the East than of any other region he visited, exhibiting thirty-one at the Royal Academy alone. These received critical acclaim and sold for high prices: for example, Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (Holloway Collection at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, Egham) was commissioned for £330 in 1841 and his Ruins of Baalbec sold for £440 the same year, while The Island of Philae (1843; priv. coll.) bought by a friend for £100, rapidly sold for £200, and in 1858 fetched 400 guineas. The works remain keenly sought after to this day. Copies of the lithographs likewise remain popular, both as market-stall souvenirs or in travel advertisements, and in facsimile editions.

Further travels

Following his return from the East, Roberts moved in December 1839 to 7 (later 38) Fitzroy Street, where he lived until his death, first renting and then in 1856 purchasing the house, building a studio there. Continuing to travel regularly to Scotland, he visited France in 1843, Brussels and Antwerp in 1845, Belgium and Holland via Paris in 1849, Bruges and Ghent in 1850, Belgium again in 1861, and Paris in 1863. In September 1851 Roberts travelled to Italy via Brussels, Cologne, Heidelberg, and Lucerne, visiting Como, Milan, Brescia, and Verona before staying in Venice for five weeks. He returned via Vienna, Prague, Hanover, and Brussels, returning to London in November. Roberts travelled again to Italy in September 1853, going through France to Genoa, Leghorn, Pisa, and Florence, then spending the winter in Rome, visiting nearby Tivoli and Frascati. He went to Naples in February 1854 and thence to Pompeii, Paestum, and Pozzuoli. Many details of Roberts's travels are recorded in his journals and letters. The travels abroad, and in England and Scotland, provided further subjects for pictures, from sweeping views like Rome (1855–6; NG Scot.) to smaller studies like Ruins of Elgin Cathedral (1853; V&A). The town of his residence, London, also provided many subjects, including an ambitious ‘serries of Pictures of London from the River Thames’ that he began in 1860, which remained unfinished at his death.

Later years

Roberts's health deteriorated in his latter years but he continued to travel and paint, and to lead an active social life. He became a member of the Athenaeum in 1857, having joined the Garrick Club a few years after its foundation in 1831. He was well-to-do and could follow his ‘own pleasure in what [to] choose to paint or not paint’ (Roberts, memoir, 1858, 2). A reflection of his standing was the inclusion of his work at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1855, the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857, and the International Exhibition at South Kensington, London, in 1862. He had continued to exhibit work regularly in Scotland, and received a diploma and bronze medal as an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1858, as well as the freedom of the city of Edinburgh.

Roberts was devoted to his daughter, Christine, who in 1841 had married Henry Sanford Bicknell, the second son of the art patron Elhanan Bicknell. She and her extensive family were a continuing source of happiness and security for Roberts, compensating for the failure of his own marriage. Roberts explained in his will, written in 1856, that
about twelve years after our marriage I was compelled in consequence of [my wife's] abandoned and drunken habits and in order to save myself and my child from utter destruction to break up my Establishment at 8 Abingdon Street and after placing my wife with her friends to leave England [for Spain]. But upon her solemn promise of amendment I took her back but she however relapsed into her former habits and I after trying in vain … to wean her from them was compelled in the year 1835 finally to separate from her and again to leave England [for the East, in 1838]. (transcript of Roberts's will, priv. coll.)
Formal separation was arranged and Roberts paid her an annuity until her death in July 1860, declaring in a letter to his friend Hay: ‘I loved her to the last, and I have every reason to believe She knew it’ (Roberts to Hay, NL Scot., 240).

His affection and care for his parents, whom Roberts moved to better accommodation in Edinburgh, continued until their deaths, and he remained close to his widowed sister, Ann, who had looked after them. He was renowned for helping artists and friends in need, and was vice-president of the Artists' General Benevolent Institution. He arranged for a collection in 1831 to purchase a burial plot and memorial stone for Patrick Nasmyth, who had died in poverty, and in 1860 contributed with Stanfield to a dwelling ‘for decayed actors’ through the auspices of the Royal Dramatic College at Maybury (ILN, 10 Dec 1864). Roberts collapsed while walking in Berners Street on 25 November 1864 and died ‘of apoplexy’ at his Fitzroy Street home that evening. He was buried on 2 December at Norwood cemetery, London, next to Elhanan Bicknell.

Described by Lady Eastlake as ‘a fine, good humoured honest creature’ whom ‘everybody loves … & mimics his Scotch’ (letter to Effie Ruskin, 1852, Bodl. Oxf.), Roberts was a stocky man, 5 feet 6 inches tall. ‘Like many Scotchmen, he spoke slow with a broad accent, and gave one in conversation the idea of a slow-working intellect. In his art, however, there was nothing slow or drawling,’ recalled one obituarist: ‘Whatever he did he did quickly, sharply, and with marked vigour’ (The Times, 28 Nov 1864). On his travels Roberts got by in languages: ‘with the little French I have mixed with Spainish, Italian, Arabic & other dead languishes I have no defeculty in getting on, as to German it seems so like my dear native tongue that I half know it already’ (letter to Christine Roberts, 1851; priv. coll.). He was always, and continues to be, popular with collectors. His work has been much copied and imitated, with reproductions still widely available as postcards and prints on tourist stalls, used in advertisements, or displayed in the countries he portrayed. But critics were—and remain—mixed in their response. The Times hailed Roberts as ‘certainly the best architectural painter that our country has yet produced … next to him being Samuel Prout’ (28 Nov 1864). A. J. Finberg, writing in an Introduction to English Watercolours in 1919, regarded Roberts as ‘the most skilful draughtsman of his time’ after Cotman and Turner. ‘Cecil B. De Mille admired the work of David Roberts’, wrote Waldemar Januszczak in a review in the Guardian in 1986. ‘His pictures are determined to take your breath away. The artist tries every pictorial trick in the book, from the dramatically plunging perspective to the lonely ruin on a hill’ and is ‘unusually good for a British painter at sampling the dark, sumptuous … interiors of Catholic cathedrals’ and ‘unusually bad for a British painter at painting the weather’. Roberts's drawings, watercolours, and oils are represented in the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate collection; the Royal Collection; Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery; the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut; and the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz


private information (2004) [B. Llewellyn; H. Guiterman] · D. Roberts, memoir and journal, 1850–61, priv. coll. · D. Roberts, scrapbooks, 2 vols., 1816–64, Art Institute of Chicago, department of prints and drawings · D. Roberts, record book (photocopy), 1829–64, priv. coll. · D. Roberts, letters, 1828–64, NL Scot. · D. Roberts, Eastern journal, 1838–9, NL Scot. [transcribed by C. Bicknell, 2 vols.] · H. Guiterman and B. Llewellyn, eds., David Roberts (1986) [incl. bibliography; exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, 6 Nov 1986 – 4 Jan 1987] · The Athenaeum (3 Dec 1864) · ILN (10 Dec 1864) · The Times (28 Nov 1864) · H. Guiterman, David Roberts R.A., 1796–1864, rev. edn (privately printed, London, 1986) · H. Guiterman, B. Llewellyn, and K. Matyjaszkiewicz, David Roberts [forthcoming] [catalogue raisonné] · J. Ballantine, The life of David Roberts R.A. (1866) · H. Guiterman, ‘Roberts on royalty’, Turner Studies, 10/1 (1990), 44–50 · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1864) · m. cert. · m. cert., 1795 [parents] · parish register, Canongate, St Cuthbert's, 23 Nov 1796 [baptism] · The exhibition of the Royal Academy [exhibition catalogues]


Art Institute of Chicago, department of prints and drawings, MS scrapbooks, incl. contracts, letters, passports, cuttings · BL, MS letters · Bodl. Oxf., MS letters · Castle Museum, Norwich, MS letters · FM Cam., MS letters · Harvard U., Houghton L., MS letters · Hunt. L., MS letters · NL Scot., corresp. · NL Scot., corresp. and papers · NL Scot., Eastern journal, MS letters · NL Scot., letters · private collections, papers · U. Edin., MS letters · V&A NAL, MS letters, sketches, and paintings · Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, MS letters · Yale U. CBA, rare books and archives, MS record book, incl. memoirs, journal, liber veritatis, review cuttings · Yale U., Beinecke L., MS letters |  CUL, letters to Joseph Bonomi · Mitchell L., Glas., letters to James Ballantyne · Morgan L., Gordon N. Ray collection, letters, MA 4500; letters, R–V autogrs. misc.; Walter Scott collection, letter and poem, MA 431 · NL Scot., corresp. with David Ramsay Hay, etc. · NL Scot., letters to Sir James Tennent


R. S. Lauder, oils, c.1820, repro. in Guiterman and Llewellyn, David Roberts · R. S. Lauder, oils, 1840, Scot. NPG · D. O. Hill, photograph, 1844, Scot. NPG · D. O. Hill & R. Adamson, photograph, 1844, NPG [see illus.] · C. Stanfield, pen-and-ink drawing, 1850?–1859, RA · L. Caldesi & Co., carte-de-visite, 1861, GL · C. W. Cope, pencil sketch, c.1862, NPG · D. Macnee, oils, 1864, RA · G. T. Morgan, bronze medal, 1875, NPG, Scot. NPG · T. Bridgford, drawing, Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin · J. W. Gordon, oils, Royal Scot. Acad. · M. Jackson, engraving (after photograph by J. & C. Watkins), repro. in ILN · D. Macnee, oils, Royal Scot. Acad. · D. Roberts, self-portrait, pencil drawing, Newport Museum and Art Gallery, Monmouthshire · chalk drawing, NPG · photographs, NPG

Wealth at death  

under £45,000: probate, 9 Dec 1864, CGPLA Eng. & Wales