In August 1838 David Roberts set off on a momentous journey that was to take him through Egypt and what was then known as The Holy Land: an eleven month trip that his friend and biographer, James Ballantine, later described as the ‘great central episode of his artistic life; it was the fulfilment of the dream of his life from boyhood’.
Roberts and his companions arrived in Petra on 6 March 1839. Few westerners had yet visited the legendary Nabataean city, which was difficult to access and inhabited by hostile Bedouin tribesmen and Roberts was the first professional artist to make sketches for a series of worked up watercolour drawings, which the present one belongs to. Drawn by Petra’s links to the biblical Edom, visitors in the 19th Century experienced a sense of awe and desolation. Roberts was astonished, writing in his Journal, ‘the whole is far beyond any idea I had ever formed of it, both in magnitude and situation’. He professed himself ‘more and more bewildered with the extent of this extraordinary city; not only the city which must be two miles in extent by nearly the same in breadth, but every ravine has been inhabited, even to the tops of the mountains. The valley itself has been filled with temples, public buildings, triumphal arches and bridges, all of which are laid prostrate with the exception of one triumphal arch & one temple …’ (these and the following citation are from Roberts’s MS Eastern Journal, National Library of Scotland (Acc.7723/2).
On 10 March, the date of this watercolour, he made ‘several sketches of the leading features of this extraordinary place’, despite the rain that had set in. These and the others he made during the five days he remained there, were the basis for 13 of the 247 watercolours which, during the decade after his return to England, Roberts made for the series of lithographs executed by Louis Haghe and eventually published together as The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia (6 vols., London: F.G. Moon, 1842-49). The text accompanying the plate after this watercolour explains that it was ‘taken from the Theatre, and represents the Excavations in the opposite cliffs; and the continuation of the chief eastern entrance to the City. The face of the rock is perforated in every accessible spot; and the prominent masses seem to have borne towers, and other defences of the pass’. This watercolour, with its towering cliffs studded with ruins, evokes the magnificent scenery that so enthralled Roberts.
Once back in England, Roberts’s energy and dedication must have been extraordinary, for at the same time as he was working on the watercolours he was also painting oils, based on the sketches from his travels and exhibiting them at the Royal Academy. One of these, ‘Termination of the Ravine leading to Petra’, exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1842, no. 525 is probably the painting now titled The Ravine leading to Petra (Christie’s, London, 28 October 2004, lot 23, fig. 1); it shows the same view as the present watercolour. The oil painting, like many of Roberts’s paintings of the Holy Land and Egypt, received widespread acclaim from the London art critics, impressed by the ‘moral grandeur’ and ‘religious awe’ that informed his work.
We are grateful to Briony Llewellyn for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.