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The Holy Land, Petra and Egypt


David Roberts’ tour of the Holy Land and Egypt between 1838-9 was a ‘great central episode of his artistic life’ and was the fulfilment of ‘the dream of his life from boyhood.’ (1) The trip began in Alexandria, Egypt before Roberts and his travelling group made their way to Cairo and eventually to the Gulf of Suez. The group ventured on to Petra where Roberts completed many works before they entered Palestine and reached Jerusalem just before Easter in 1839. Roberts made many drawings in the Holy Land that had biblical links and he finished his tour by going along the Lebanese coast reaching the ancient town of Baalbec. He left Beirut on the 13th May 1839 to the city of Alexandria where he continued his voyage back home to London via Malta, Gibraltar and Cadiz. He arrived back with 272 sketches, a panorama of Cairo and three full sketchbooks that he knew would ‘serve [him] for the rest of [his] life.’ (2) Roberts on his return painted a considerable amount of oil paintings depicting scenes from the Middle East with thirty-one being exhibited at the Royal Academy alone. The British public had never seen biblical or Near East classical locations painted with such clarity and skill. This helped to raise the status of Roberts on his return and surely helped in him being elected as an associate of the Royal Academy in 1839 before becoming a full Academician in 1841. 

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Although not strictly the first professional artist to visit the Near East (the watercolourist William James Müller happened to also be in Egypt at the same time) Roberts’ first-hand compositions were the first by someone as esteemed as he was as an artist. On his return he submitted his works to many publishers hoping they may be interested in a large-scale publication after the Finden brothers did not follow up on their pre-trip interest. Eventually Francis Graham Moon impressed Roberts and offered three thousand pounds for the rights to publish the work, and also for his supervision of the etching of the printing plates. (3) The lithographs that made up this esteemed venture were made up of three volumes of ‘The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Egypt, Nubia’ and were published between 1841 and 1849. They were executed by Roberts’ Belgian friend Louis Haghe who had helped with some of his Spanish Sketches lithographs. He worked on the original sketches and observations by Roberts and then completed each print in two colours before they were then coloured in by hand if they were part of the Royal Subscription Edition (RSE) folio (we explore the different versions of the lithographs in this series in greater detail in a separate section). Martin Hardie writing in 1906 believed the hand-coloured lithographs were ‘the finest result of this method’ and helped to enhance the works even further. (4) The outlay costs were massive for Moon so a condition of the contract with Roberts was to help raise funds through advanced subscriptions to help cover production. This led to Roberts and Moon publicly exhibiting his Near East drawings that would be used in the folio at various locations across the country. The response was extraordinary with over four hundred advance subscriptions achieved within a year that helped to raise more than double the costs needed. Important subscribers included: Her Majesty Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Kings of France, Prussia and Bavaria, the Emperors of Russia and Austria, the Pasha of Egypt and Charles Dickens.

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The folio was split into two parts: The Holy Land and Egypt and Nubia, with each containing three volumes. There are roughly sixty full plate and sixty half plate lithographs in each book with the entire six volumes containing two hundred and fifty lithographs. We have included the plate number for each work we are selling and make it clear whether it is a full or a half plate and also which series of lithographs came from. Every work we sell is an original from the 1840s and the RSE include original hand-colouring by Haghe and his assistants.



  1. James Ballantine. The Life of David Roberts R.A., Edinburgh, 1866, pp.78, 231.

  2. David Roberts. Eastern Journal, unpublished transcript by Christine Bicknell, 2 Vols., National Library of Scotland, 28 January 1839. Quoted in Helen Guiterman and Briony Llewellyn (eds). David Roberts, exh. catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery: London, 1986, p.69.

  3. Fabio Bourbon (ed). Yesterday and Today: The Holy Land Lithographs and Diaries by David Roberts, R.A.,Swan Hill Press: London, 1997, p.21.

  4. Martin Hardie. English Coloured Books, Bath, 1973 quoted in Katherine Sim. David Roberts R.A. 1796-1864: A Biography, Quartet Books Limited: London, 1984, p.207.

Works for Sale

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