(b. 1796, Stockbridge, d. 1864, London)

A View in Cairo

Oil on canvas, 91 x 70 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor

The artist visited the Near East in 1838-39, travelling extensively in Egypt and the Holy Land. Having begun his career as a house-painter and a painter of stage scenery, first in Scotland where he was born and then in England, Roberts established a reputation as a topographical artist during the 1820s, concentrating mainly on European views. The visit to the Near East was, according to Roberts's friend and first biographer, John Ballantine, the 'great central episode of his artistic life'. Indeed, he returned with 272 drawings, a panorama of Cairo and three sketchbooks filled with motifs. The drawings either formed the basis of paintings, or else were published as a series of prints entitled The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia, published in three volumes between 1842 and 1849 with the lithographs executed by Louis Haghe. This was the first accurate topographical record of the Holy Land to be published in England.

It would seem as though the prints outweighed the significance of the paintings, but, in fact, Roberts produced more paintings of the Near East than of any other area he visited. The popularity of these paintings was in part due to their quality, but it was also as a result of the growing interest in the Holy Land and the neighbouring countries associated with the Bible. This interest increased during the 1830s at the same time as travel became easier in these areas. Roberts was thus able to capitalise on this situation. His views are not simply accurate records of the appearance of buildings. Genre elements are introduced as he himself became interested in the social mores of these different countries. The few biblical narratives, inspired by Old Testament subjects, that were painted by Roberts before he went to the Holy Land were conceived by contrast in the manner of John Martin.

In A View in Cairo the view is towards the Gate of Zuweyleh (colloquially known as Mutwalli or Metwalis), over which tower the minarets of the mosque of Sultan Mu'ayyad Shaykh. The entrance to the mosque itself is on the right. Roberts also made a painting of the interior, for which he had to have special permission.