Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Roberts, David (1796-1864)
ROBERTS, DAVID (1796–1864), painter, was born at Stockbridge, a suburb of Edinburgh, on 24 Oct. 1796. His parents were of humble rank. His father, a shoemaker, recognised, however, his son's talent for drawing, and gave him the best chance in his power by apprenticing him to one Beugo, a house-painter and decorator. Roberts remained for seven years with Beugo, and at the end of this time determined to try his hand at scene-painting. His first engagement in a theatre was given him by a travelling company at Carlisle. After this beginning he secured more regular work, first at Glasgow and then at Edinburgh. In 1822 he was on the permanent staff of the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh. In the intervals of his work at the theatre he found time to paint several architectural pieces for exhibition. Later in the year he obtained an engagement in the scene-room of Drury Lane Theatre, whereupon he left Edinburgh and settled in London. Two years later he deserted Drury Lane for the rival house of Covent Garden, and shortly afterwards he paid his first visit to the continent. His holiday was spent chiefly among the old coast towns of Normandy, whence he brought back many sketches and studies of Gothic churches and buildings. In this same year (1824) he became a member of the Society of British Artists, and an exhibitor at the Suffolk Street galleries. In 1826 he sent his first contribution, a picture of Rouen Cathedral, to the Royal Academy, but for some years afterwards he exhibited only at Suffolk Street. Gradually, however, as his reputation grew, he deserted the exhibitions of the British Artists, and in 1836 resigned his membership in order to seek the higher honours of the academy. He was elected A.R.A. in 1839, and R.A. in 1841.
His improved position gave him more leisure for travel, and he visited most of the countries of Europe in search of picturesque subjects, even extending his wanderings so far afield as Egypt and Syria. Towards the close of his life he was content to paint the more familiar beauties of England, and almost the last work on which he was engaged was a series of views on the Thames. He was a very popular artist in his day, though his reputation has now suffered a not undeserved eclipse. During his lifetime he found a ready sale not only for his pictures, but for the lithographic reproductions of the drawings made during his journeys abroad. The most successful of these were ‘Picturesque Sketches in Spain’ (1837), ‘Sketches in the Holy Land and Syria’ (1842), and ‘Italy, Classical, Historical, and Picturesque’ (1859). In 1851 he was appointed one of the commissioners for the Great Exhibition. On 25 Nov. 1864 he had an apoplectic seizure in the street, and died a few hours later. He was buried in Norwood cemetery. The National Gallery owns a good though small example of his art in the ‘Interior of Burgos Cathedral;’ at Edinburgh he is represented by a ‘Sunset View at Rome,’ and at South Kensington by a large selection of views and studies of picturesque architecture in Spain, Italy, Egypt, and Scotland. Two of his best pictures are in the gallery of the city of London.
The art of Roberts, modified by the various influences under which he came, divides itself into three periods. His most pleasing works are those painted before 1840, and dealing with scenes of western Europe. In these he was clearly guided by Dutch exemplars, and his defects as a colourist are least apparent. After his visit to the East he painted more thinly and coldly, while in his latest pictures from Italy the chilly tones become hard and black. It is as a draughtsman and as an organiser of masses that he shows most facility. He had a considerable sense of architectural effect; and he understood how to subordinate detail without losing richness. A portrait of Roberts by J. J. Napier belongs to Mr. Algernon Graves. There is another portrait engraved from a photograph by D. J. Pound.[Life of David Roberts, R.A., by James Ballantine (Edinburgh, 1866); Redgrave's Dict. of Artists of the British School; Bryan's Dict. of Painters and Engravers.]