David Roberts was born in Stockbridge, Edinburgh. At the age of 10, he was apprenticed by his father, who was a shoemaker and for seven years to a house painter and decorator named Gavin Beugo. During this time he studied art in the evenings. His first paid job came in 1815 when he moved to Perth for a year to work as a decorator.
In 1816, the Pantheon Theatre in Edinburgh took him on as a stage designer’s assistant. This was the beginning of his career as a painter and designer of stage scenery. In 1819, he became the scene painter at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow. There Roberts met the Scottish actress Margaret McLachlan, said to be the illegitimate daughter of a Highland gypsy girl and a clan chief. They married in 1820 “for pure love.” Although the marriage did not last long, it produced Roberts’ only daughter, Christine, who was born in 1821.
Although he was making a living doing scene painting, it was around this time that Roberts began to produce oil paintings seriously. In 1820, he became friends with the artist William Clarkson Stanfield, then painting at the Pantheon in Edinburgh. In 1821, the Fine Arts Institution of Edinburgh accepted two of Roberts’s paintings, “Views of Melrose” and “Dryburgh Abbeys” which sold. At Stanfield’s suggestion, Roberts also sent three pictures to the 1822 Exhibition of Works by Living Artists, held in Edinburgh.
In 1822 the Coburg Theatre, now the Old Vic in London, offered Roberts a job as a scenic designer and stage painter. He sailed from Leith with his wife and their six-month-old daughter Christine and settled in London. After working for a while at the Coburg Theatre, Roberts moved to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane to create dioramas and panoramas with Stanfield.
A miniature by Roberts from this time shows Margaret as a delicate woman with blonde ringlets, holding the smiling three-year-old Christine. But Roberts’ family life was not as idyllic as this picture suggests. Margaret had become an alcoholic and eventually, in 1831, Roberts sent her back to Scotland to be cared for by friends. Roberts may have burned some letters from this period in shame at his wife’s drinking problem, but he was unusually frank in a letter to a friend, David Ramsay Hay. Roberts and Hay had been apprentices together.
In 1824, he exhibited another view of “Dryburgh Abbey” at the British Institution and sent two works to the first exhibition of the newly formed Society of British Artists. In the autumn of 1824, he visited Normandy. His paintings based on this trip began to lay the foundation of his reputation. One of them, a “View of Rouen Cathedral,” sold for 80 guineas.
While he built his reputation as a fine artist, Roberts’s stage work had also been commercially successful. Commissions from Covent Garden included the sets for the London premiere of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) in 1827, scenery for a pantomime depicting the naval victory of Navarino and two panoramas that he executed jointly with Stanfield.
During the second part of the 1820s and in addition to English and Scottish scenes, Roberts painted views of prominent buildings in France and the Low Countries including Amiens, Caen, Dieppe, Rouen, Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent, sometimes making several paintings of the same scene with only minor variations.
By 1829, he was working full-time as a fine artist. That year, he exhibited the Departure of the Israelites from Egypt in which his style first became apparent. In 1831, the Society of British Artists elected him as their president. The next year he traveled in Spain and Tangiers. He returned at the end of 1833 with a supply of sketches that he elaborated into attractive and popular paintings. The British Institution exhibited his Interior of Seville Cathedral in 1834 and he sold it for £300. He executed a fine series of Spanish illustrations for the Landscape Annual of 1836. Then, in 1837, a selection of his Picturesque Sketches in Spain was reproduced by lithography.
In London, he made the acquaintance of artists such as Edward Thomas Daniell and John Linnell, who frequented Daniel’s house.
J.M.W. Turner managed to persuade him to abandon scene painting and devote himself to becoming a full-time artist. Roberts set sail for Egypt in August 1838. His intent was to produce drawings that he could later use as the basis for the paintings and lithographs to sell to the public. Egypt was much in vogue at this time and travellers, collectors and lovers of antiquities were keen to buy works inspired by the East or depicting the great monuments of ancient Egypt.
Roberts made a long tour in Egypt, Nubia, the Sinai, the Holy Land, Jordan and Lebanon. Throughout, he produced a vast collection of drawings and watercolor sketches.
Upon Roberts’s return to Edinburgh in 1840, his fellow-artist, Robert Scott Lauder, painted his portrait. (In 1980, the National Gallery of Scotland purchased the portrait.)
On his return to Britain, Roberts worked with lithographer Louis Haghe from 1842 to 1849 to produce the lavishly illustrated plates of the Sketches in the Holy Land, Syria, Egypt and Nubia. He funded the work through advance subscriptions, which he solicited directly. The scenery and monuments of Egypt and Holy Land were fashionable but had hitherto been hardly touched by British artists and so Roberts quickly accumulated 400 subscription commitments with Queen Victoria being subscriber #1. Her complete set is still in the Royal Collection.
His last volume of illustrations, Italy, Classical, Historical and Picturesque was published in 1859. He also executed, by command of Queen Victoria, a picture of the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851.
The last years of his life were occupied with a series of views of London from the Thames. He had executed six of these and was at work upon a picture of St Paul’s Cathedral when he passed away suddenly of apoplexy.