The big draw

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IT WAS to be a book like no other: bigger, more beautifully bound, more lavishly illustrated. But the man behind the world's most expensive travel book was no gentleman adventurer. He was a painter and decorator from Edinburgh with a big talent, and an even bigger ambition.

David Roberts travelled through the Middle East in the 1830s when such journeys were virtually unknown, sketching as he went. He published his work, The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia, in six immense, folio-sized volumes. Three of these volumes, covering the Holy Land and the surrounding area, bound in two magnificent books, will be auctioned at Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh on Tuesday.

Valued at between 8,000 and 12,000, these books are increasingly rare. "So many copies have been broken up and sold as prints, it has reduced the number of complete copies enormously. It is very likely that this copy has been in Edinburgh since it was bought by an original subscriber," says Simon Vickers, a books specialist at Lyon & Turnbull.

But this is more than the story of a book. It's the rags-to-riches story of a shoemaker's son from Stockbridge who became one of the best-known artists of his generation. What he lacked in formal training, he made up for in nous, ambition and raw talent. He overcame tragedy in his personal life to become the toast of Victorian society, patronised by royalty, a friend of Turner, Dickens, Thackeray and Landseer.

Roberts began his working life at the age of ten, as apprentice to the house painter and decorator Gavin Beugo. He would spend the next seven years grinding and stirring paint in Beugo's foul-smelling workshop for the princely sum of two shillings a week. But in his spare time he loved to draw, which his mother allowed him to do with a charcoal pencil on the whitewashed wall of their flat in Duncan's Land. At 19 he got a job as a scene painter for a troupe of travelling players, ignoring the pleas of his parents to settle for the steady income of a journeyman housepainter.

His remit to be "generally useful" to the company included taking parts on stage, including, on one memorable occasion, a bandit, a part he got so caught up in that he fired his pistol in the face of his fellow actor. "Fortunately, the pistol was not loaded," Roberts wrote of the incident.

He was engaged painting scenery for theatres in Edinburgh and Glasgow when he met slender, blonde Margaret McLachlan, rumoured to be the illegitimate daughter of a Highland gypsy girl and a clan chief. They married quickly in 1820, "for pure love" - she was 19, he was 23 and penniless.

Envied among decorators for his ability to paint imitation marble and woodgrain, he could have made a comfortable living as a house painter, but Roberts wanted more. He began to paint in oils and submit his work to the Fine Arts Institution of Edinburgh. In 1821 three paintings - views of the abbeys of Melrose and Dryburgh - were accepted, and two were sold. When Roberts was offered work as a scene painter at a theatre in London, he sailed from Leith with his wife and their six-month-old daughter Christine to begin a new life.

At first, all seemed well. Roberts's theatre work was in demand, and he was beginning to exhibit his paintings. A miniature painted when Christine was about three shows Margaret, a delicate figure with blonde ringlets, clasping a smiling cherub of a child. But the reality was less rosy. Margaret, perhaps driven by loneliness in the vast, strange city, had become an alcoholic. Her addiction gnawed at the heart of family life. Eventually, in 1831, Roberts sent her back to Scotland to be cared for by friends.

His biographer Katherine Sim suspects that he had some of his journals and correspondence destroyed in an attempt to eliminate references to his wife's "disgrace". But he was unusually frank in a letter to his friend David Ramsay Hay, whom he had known since they were apprentices together, and whose wife shared the affliction. "If you do not know our cases are almost parallel. Yours is not as bad as mine, having some consolation [Hay had a mistress]. The state of my nerves is such I can scarcely write. But thank God she leaves tomorrow - I hope for ever."

By this time he had given up scene painting and had a studio of his own. In 1832 Roberts made his first major voyage as an artist, to Spain, which resulted in a variety of private commissions, but he was ambitious for more. To achieve recognition as a topographical artist, and the longed-for respect of the artists of the Royal Academy, he needed to break new ground, go boldly where no artist had gone before.

The lands of the Bible exerted a huge fascination over pious Victorians. Roberts had helped produce plates for Finden's Landscape Illustrations of the Bible, copying the sketches of amateurs whose accuracy and ability he doubted. It inflamed his desire to tackle this subject matter for himself. In September 1837 he docked at Alexandria, and furnished with a boat, captain and crew, and a personal guard, he set sail up the Nile for Dendera, Luxor, Philae and Cairo, sketching all the way. At every scene he applied the same exacting eye and precise pencil, capturing the scene and its inhabitants not with the dryness of the topographical artist but with the theatrical scene painter's eye for drama.

"With the exception of mosquitos, myriads of flies, fleas, bugs, lice, lizards and rats, I was tolerably well off," he wrote home from his boat on the Nile. "Add to which the thermometer was at 100 in the shade and sometimes higher, but that is of no consequence . . ." Nothing - not burning sun, mobbing peasants, mutinous sailors, biting mosquitos - would get between Roberts and his goal.

He drew and painted everywhere, even inside mosques, "a privilege never before given to a Christian". It was given to him on the strict condition that he did not use brushes made of hog's bristles, which would be seen as an act of desecration. Ever a straight talker, Roberts proclaimed that it was a small price to pay for being allowed to sketch such beauty. "If the penalty had been to make the drawings in my shirt it would have been cheap at the price!"

On 5 February 1838 he set off for the second phase of his adventure to Syria and the Holy Land. Clad in Arab dress, he left Cairo with his British companions Pell and Kinnear, their servants, Bedouin guides and 21 camels. The impressive party toiled up the slopes of Mount Sinai, "between black shattered cliffs of granite some 800 feet high which every minute threatened to send down their ruin on the head of the traveller", and were dazzled by the lost city of Petra. "I oft threw away my pencil in despair of ever being able to convey any idea of it."

At night the travellers nursed their saddle sores, drank London Porter and watched the sun go down. Roberts records in his journal, "What a picturesque group are our Bedoiun Arabs at night, as they gather rough the watch-fire! They would suit [fellow painters David] Wilkie or [William] Allan delightfully, but 30 miles a day sitting on a camel rather unfits me for sketching them!"

In Hebron they learned that Jerusalem was quarantined because of plague, but restrictions were lifted in time for Easter. "Prudence might well whisper . . . to avoid it, but I cannot overcome the longing desire I have to see the great city," Roberts wrote. And from thence, sketchbook in hand, to Jericho, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Calvary, Tiberias.

Roberts was enchanted by the Middle East, but as a paternalistic Victorian he did not have the tools to grasp the complexity of inter-faith relations there. At one point he narrowly escaped with his life, having stooped to examine an intricate piece of Islamic embroidery and thereby desecrated a religious covering bound for Mecca.

At the Dead Sea he "wondered at the combination of creeds gathered together to visit scenes so dear to the memory of the Christian".

The group reached the ruined Temple of the Sun at Baalbek in a downpour and Roberts was starting a fever. It did not stop him sketching there, but the last leg of the trip, to Damascus and Palmyra, was cancelled and he headed for home. However, it was exactly as he predicted in an earlier letter to Hay. "I have no doubt all will end well - then for home with one of the richest folios that ever left the East. It is worth the hazard."

Roberts had what he wanted, work to dazzle the Academy. But he knew that he had to maximise the opportunities this allowed him. His planned book was described as "the most ambitious work ever published in England with lithographed plates". The artist commissioned a suitably ponderous historical text from Rev George Croly LLD, and lavishly furnished it with drawings, which, for an additional fee, could be hand coloured.

Publisher John Murray balked at the cost of producing it - some 10,000, but a smaller and more enterprising publisher, Francis Graham Moon, was prepared to take the risk. Roberts funded the printing by advance subscriptions: paintings from the trip were exhibited in cities from London to Edinburgh, with private audiences arranged for key individuals including Queen Victoria and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. Soon orders were flooding in.

The book was the making of Roberts. "It was something of a gamble, if it hadn't worked it would have been a financial disaster. He was quite visionary in seeing that there would be a demand and pursuing it," says Simon Vickers.

"The impact of his book was phenomenal, there were very few books like it. Roberts' views were as revolutionary in their day as that of people seeing a photographic image for the first time. This was the exotic and dramatic Middle East as it had never been seen before, in all its vibracy, magnificence and colour, made all the more dramatic by its juxtaposition with squalor and poverty," he says.

By the time the first volume was published, Roberts had already achieved his goal: he was elected a full member of the Royal Academy, a rare honour for a topographical artist. He was becoming well known and increasingly wealthy; politicians, patrons and artists regularly enjoyed the hospitality of his Fitzroy Street home. In 1851 he was made a commissioner for the Great Exhibition.

He never denied his humble origins, and became a generous benefactor, arguing for art exhibitions to open in the evenings to allow access for the "horney-handed working man". He remembered those who had helped him in his youth, and moved his elderly parents into a comfortable house in central Edinburgh. And he travelled back to Scotland every summer, though he complained when he painted at Rosslyn Chapel that he was mobbed by eager fans.

Meanwhile his pretty, intelligent daughter Christine had married one Henry Bicknell and was in the process of producing nine children, on whom Roberts doted.

But the estranged Mrs Roberts still cast a shadow over his life. "I thank God I have had but one grievance, but that one has been a very sad one," he wrote. In 1854, in a bid for an increased allowance, Margaret started legal proceedings against him, which ended in a formal separation.

Roberts was angry enough to call her "that brazen-faced monster", yet he seemed also to realise that his own ambitions, which took him so often away from home, may have contributed to his wife's decline. In one letter he writes: "I fear our sorrows are in most instances of our own creating." But after Margaret's death in 1860, he wrote of her to Hay with warmth and sadness. "I confess it, I loved her to the last, and I have every reason to believe she knew it."

In November 1864 Roberts collapsed on his way to meet a friend, suffering what is believed to have been a massive stroke. He died shortly afterwards, aged 68. The journalist Harriet Martineau wrote: "The death of Mr Roberts will excite interest and regret over a wider area than the loss of perhaps any other artist of the present generation in this country."

He had come a long way from Stockbridge, and although his was a typically Victorian success story, with his wealth based on hard work, bright ideas and self-confidence, he also achieved something more modern. David Roberts had become a celebrity.

• The David Roberts volumes will be auctioned at Lyon & Turnbull as part of a sale of Rare Books, Manuscripts, Maps and Photographs, to be held on Tuesday, 11 July. Tel: 0131-557 8844 or visit the website at www.lyonandturnbull.com

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