The Holy Land

David Roberts, R.A.

(Terra Sancta Arts Ltd.- Jerusalem, 1982) 360 pp., $120.00 plus $9.50 p/h. The sole U.S. distributor is The Jerusalem Post, 120 East 56th Street, New York, N.Y. 10020.

Yesterday the Holy Land

David Roberts

(Zondervan- Grand Rapids, 1982) 144 pp., $16.95

The delicately colored lithographs of David Roberts are among the finest products of the 19th-century European exploration of the Holy Land. In recent years, many of Roberts’s landscapes have appeared individually in books and on calendars, greeting cards and postcards. Now, however, 123 of Roberts’s original lithographs have been reproduced and collected in this single volume. Beside each lithograph is a modern photograph of each location drawn by Roberts. We are also treated to the text of Roberts’s personal journal of his travels through the Holy Land. And all of this is supplemented with historical background.

Roberts’s artistic journey to the Middle East took place in 1839, a time of international tension and of Egyptian military occupation of Syria and Palestine. Mehmet Ali, the renegade viceroy of Egypt, was anxious to gain diplomatic support in the West, and he accordingly provided protection and assistance to many European visitors to the lands under his control. Roberts was one of the beneficiaries of this policy, and the landscapes that he drew during his Middle Eastern travels helped to spur great interest in the lands of the Bible throughout the western world.

Roberts was born in Scotland in 1796. Though apprenticed as a house painter at an early age, he showed a decided preference for more demanding artistic work, eventually becoming a painter of stage scenery, a “scenarist,” as the profession was called in those days. Working for years at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, Roberts eventually gained a wide reputation and amassed considerable wealth. During most of his later career, this financial independence allowed him to travel extensively throughout Europe and the Middle East.

His specialty was landscapes, and the effect of his years in the theater can be plainly seen. Roberts brought the tension of the dramatic stage to his landscapes, implicitly suggesting the mythic or historical events that had taken place at every site. He brought to his views of gloomy Scottish castles and medieval Spanish fortresses a flair for the truly dramatic, as if simply to record what he saw before him was not enough.

Roberts imbued his landscapes of the Holy Land with a similar sense of grandeur—which the contemporary photographs published in this volume show perhaps never really existed. In every comparison between Roberts’s work and that of the camera, the reader sees the same elements in grander proportion, wider angle. Roberts’s crags are craggier, his mountains loftier and more majestic and his ruins more imposing than they seem today.

But the purpose of these Holy Land-scapes was not only to reproduce what was there. Like the other explorers and artists of his times, Roberts had come in search of “Biblical Illustration” and his scenes of daily life, whether of a Bedouin encampment, a merchants’ caravan, rituals in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or a group of Jewish pilgrims arriving at Jaffa, have the feel of truly Biblical events. In his views of Petra, in particular, his guides have the look more of wandering Israelites than 19th-century Bedouin.

For the most part, the sites that Roberts sketched have not changed greatly, yet some of his landscapes show ruins that have long since disappeared. Ashkelon, Samaria, and Beit Guvrin are shown with imposing Roman structures. But whether the structures were actually as imposing as he rendered them will never be known, for Roberts, in addition to being a scenarist, was a romantic as well. Fascinated by the mystique of ancient ruins, he placed in the foreground of almost all of his landscapes fallen columns, shattered pediments, or other relics of the grandeur of antiquity that had sadly passed.

For those readers who enjoy the landscapes of Roberts and are interested in the history of the Holy Land in the 19th century, this volume offers a wealth of material, though not without some frustrating problems of format. The book, large and heavy, must constantly be turned sideways to be read, for the text and the journal are printed parallel to the spine. Even more awkward is the printing of the larger landscapes on double-page plates, requiring the reader to turn the volume around to read the text and then to turn the page to view the lithograph described.

The idea of reprinting Roberts’s personal journal is a good one, though it too unfortunately suffers from an awkward format. The lithographs have been grouped roughly according to geographical regions, while the journal has been printed in chronological order. The result is that while one is looking at the landscapes of the Lebanese coast, Roberts’s journal is describing his visit to Petra. The only point of correspondence is a bright, shining moment when both Roberts and the reader are together in Nablus, but quickly they part company, and the reader goes on to Petra while the journal proceeds to Beirut.

But the reader who does not need to follow the journal or who enjoys the pure pleasure of Roberts’s artistry might not find such problems serious, for this volume has other rewards. It provides faithful, full-color reproductions of some of the finest landscapes of the Holy Land ever drawn.

For those readers who cannot accommodate either the weight or the cost of the larger edition of The Holy Land by David Roberts, Zondervan Publishing House has offered an alternative. Yesterday the Holy Land is a compact volume containing many of Roberts’s most famous landscapes in an attractive format.

The drawings in this book are arranged according to Biblical themes rather than geographical order, and they are accompanied on each facing page with a brief background description and Biblical quotation. The value of the text and introduction is limited, but the quality of the color reproduction is extremely high.

One note of consumer warning- the jacket cover promises the reader “Over 100 Beautiful Illustrations”—beautiful they are, but there are only 68.