In the early 1800’s, European maps of the interior of the continent of Africa had large blank areas. Over the next 100 years, explorers took up the challenge & began exploring “the Dark Continent”. The African Association had been formed in 1788 to sponsor these explorers & among the first was Mungo Park who was imprisoned by an Arab chief, suffered serious illness & had to endure much of the journey alone in his attempt to map the Niger.
Other explorers were more focused on studying the peoples, languages & cultures of Africa. Men like Heinrich Barth documented their travels & Barth’s journals with his meticulous notes were instrumental in studying & understanding Sudanic Africa. It is still in use as a scholarly resource.
Arguably, the most famous of these explorers was David Livingstone who became the first European to cross the continent of Africa. The journey took three years. Driven by his hatred of slavery, Livingstone felt his exploration was directed by God & developed significant connections with many tribal chiefs helping pave the way for improved relationships between the continents.
In the midst of this, artist & traveler David Roberts entered the scene. Born in Scotland just before the turn of the 19th century, he showed great talent as an artist. His parents’ encouraged him, apprenticing him to a house painter & decorator. He moved on to painting scenery for a traveling circus, eventually designing & painting for many of Charles Dickens’ productions.
Roberts was an extensive traveler. He first journeyed to Spain and Algeria in 1832, then moved on to Morocco, Tangiers, and Tetuan. He transformed his sketches of Spain into beautiful paintings, most notable among them Interior of Seville Cathedral & Spanish illustrations for the Landscape Annual.
In the mid to late 1830’s he traveled throughout Egypt, selling oil paintings, sketches & lithographs the proceeds of which he to finance a second expedition. He was the first English artist to draw the immense & beautiful Egyptian monuments at a time before restoration of them had begun. He did not paint during his eleven month trip, but sketched using these drawings to create works with intricate detail & on his return to England. He asked Francis Graham Moon to publish the complete work totaling 6 volumes and 247 lithographs. These works cemented his reputation as a respected artist & gained him significant fame.
Roberts continued to paint until the end of his life. He died suddenly of a stroke in November of 1864.
To this day, many of Roberts’ works are displayed in the Victoria & Albert Museum. His journals & sketches fetch large amounts of money when they come up at auction as they are highly valued by art collectors. Reprints of his work still appear on postcards, books & other publications – an astounding legacy for the son of a simple shoemaker.
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