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Fall Exhibition Will Feature New David Roberts Print

Thanks to the generosity of Kelsey Associates Robert and Pearson Macek, the Museum has added a ninth lithograph by David Roberts (1796-1864) to its collection—and one that has special meaning for the Kelsey. All nine prints will be displayed in the Kelsey hallway from October 16 to December 15.

The Maceks’ gift resulted from a concatenation of unexpected events. Sharon Herbert, the Kelsey Director now on sabbatical, was wandering the Old City of Jerusalem when she discovered a beautiful Roberts print of the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, the Mount of Moses. The Kelsey, in conjunction with Princeton University and the University of Alexandria, had conducted an ambitious study of this unusual site in 1958, 1960, 1963, and 1965. Directed by the late George H. Forsyth, Jr., the project focused on the original buildings and magnificent art contained within, including icons, mosaics, wall paintings, and miniatures. St. Catherine’s, the oldest monastery in existence, is still active today.

When the Maceks, who were friends and admirers of George Forsyth, heard that we were contemplating a purchase of this particular Roberts, they immediately offered to acquire the piece and donate it to the Kelsey in Forsyth’s memory. The other eight Roberts prints were given by Eugene and Emily Grant in 1995.

Of all the nineteenth-century travelers to Egypt and the Near East, Roberts was one of the most notable. A prolific and talented artist, he produced thousands of drawings, sketches, lithographs, and paintings, including detailed depictions of ancient monuments that are now badly damaged. No other artist has left such a compelling visual record of ancient Egypt and the Near East.

Roberts’s personal life was as interesting as his art. The son of a poor Scottish shoemaker, he exhibited artistic talent early and became apprenticed to an Edinburgh house painter. Although his seven-year apprenticeship was to prove harsh and exacting, it allowed the young Roberts time to hone his considerable skills. Unlike house painters of today, those of the early nineteenth century were involved in imitative painting and were often asked by wealthy clients to transform flat walls into marble staircases, elegant pavements, and traceried panels. His apprenticeship completed, Roberts found work as a scenic painter in the theater, working first with a strolling company, then with theatrical groups on the London stage, where his beautiful scenic designs drew lavish praise.

Like many of his contemporaries, Roberts traveled abroad on sketching tours. Between 1823 and 1833 he made several trips to Spain and produced a number of splendid lithographs whose success surprised even the artist: 1,200 sets of his lithographs were sold in a mere two months. But Roberts’s visit to the Near East in 1838-39 was “the great central episode of his artistic life.” Since his childhood, he had dreamed of seeing the Holy Land and Egypt.

A compulsive writer of journals and letters, Roberts describes his visit to Egypt and a boat trip up the Nile with a vivid and painterly hand. Possibly because of his limited formal education, Roberts, though widely read, was a poor speller. A letter to a close friend provides an insightful account of his Nile voyage:

. . . and with the exception of Mosquitos, myriads of flys, fleas, bugs, lice, lizards, and ratts, I was tollerably well off—with these accompaniments you may be shure all was not pleasure—add to which the Thermometre at 100 in the Shade and sometimes higher. . . . But that is of no consequence . . . I cannot say [that my sketches have] done justice to [ancient Egypt], for no painting can do that . . . and no artist that ever lived could come near—the sunrising and setting are the most glorious, perhaps in the world and these glorious ruins, ruins still retaining the brillant colours with which they were decorated . . .

After his return to England in 1839, Roberts spent the next ten years producing drawings (based on his sketches) for a series of 247 lithographs. The Egyptian collection was first published between 1846 and 1850 in large format, variously colored; a reduced-size series in monochrome appeared between 1855 and 1856.

On behalf of the Kelsey Museum, I extend our warmest thanks to the Maceks for their wonderful and generous gift honoring George Forsyth.

—Lauren Talalay