‘In this illustrious piece of architecture, the artist has introduced a feeling, poetry and effect, which are among the highest attributes of genius. And yet every figure and feature of the scene are studied with the most perfect accuracy. The sun sets on the Libyan hills and, on the lower grounds, tinging them with a pervading glow of ruddy light, which is marvellously beautiful; and on the left is a sheet of water, deliciously reflecting the cool against the warm colour, and hemmed in by straight lines, so as to be as fine a contrast to the rugged and irregular shapes of the mountains. A splendid work.’ (Literary Gazette, 10 May 1845, p. 298)
Famous during his lifetime, David Roberts was considered the greatest documenter of the relics of the ancient world. His depictions of the tombs, temples and landscapes of Egypt remain the most recognised western images of these now famous sites. His paintings have a monumentality and romance that evoke the grandeur of the lost civilisations of antiquity and make a statement regarding the power of the new world in which they were painted. These majestic, towering ruins, glowing golden in the sunlight, can be seen as metaphors for the Imperialisation of nineteenth century Europe – making the connection between the achievements of the empires of the past and those of the present. Time may have ravaged the glories of great dynasties but their achievements have endured in the monuments they left. Just as the great temple at Karnac bore testament to the engineering, taste and power of the ancient Egyptians, the Victorian cities of Britain were being built in a grand style to celebrate the modern world. Roberts’ paintings, and the engravings based upon them, spread this message of the connection between the ancient and modern world. Those painted in Egypt also perhaps reflect the might of the Napoleonic campaigns in the country and the fashion for all things Egyptian that resulted from this.
In 1845 when his reputation was at its zenith, Roberts exhibited the present picture, one of his largest paintings to be shown at the Royal Academy. Its full title was given in the catalogue, Ruins of the Great Temple of Karnak, in Upper Egypt, Looking Towards the Libyan Chain of Hills, Called Baban el Malouk (the Gate of the Kings) in which the Excavated Tombs of the King of Thebes – Sunset. “Karnac is one of the Five Great Temples still Left of Thebes, the Ancient Capital of Upper Egypt. Profane History is Silent in Respect to it, and Records Only its Capture by Cambyses, King of Persia, son of Cyrus the Great, in the Year 526 B.C., and of its Final Destruction by Ptolomy Lathyrus, After a Protracted Siege of Three Years, 81 B.C.
Roberts had been born into poverty as the son of a shoemaker in Edinburgh and had little education. He trained at first as an apprentice to a house painter and later became a scenery-painter for various theatres in Scotland and London before finally becoming successful as an artist. With an increasing curiosity in foreign travel in the 1820s and 1830s Roberts became popular for his paintings of Spanish and North African architecture, painted on journeys in 1832 and 1833. The present picture was painted during the period following Roberts' return to London from travelling in Egypt and the Levant in 1839. Facing the dangers of lack of sanitation, bandits and often hostile weather and oppressive climate, he managed to undertake an impressive journey from Alexandria to Abu Simbel and back to Cairo, across the Sinai to Petra where few Europeans had trod and onward to the Holy Land. He developed a genuine respect and affection for the local people and a fascination with the landscape, architecture and archaeology. Upon his return to London his watercolour sketches and the oil paintings they inspired were received enthusiastically by the public and patrons alike. In 1842 a dinner was held in Edinburgh in his honour by Lord Cockburn, who said; ‘He explored that patriarchal land; he searched its innermost recesses, and returned to his native country laden with the richest treasures, after having completed his finest pilgrimage in art which has ever perhaps been performed by a single man’ (J. Ballantine, The Life of David Roberts, R.A., 1866, p. 150). The series of lithographs documenting his travels thrust Roberts into fame and fortune.
The view is from the east gate of the temple complex, with the Sacred Lake to the left and the great Temple of Amun to the right. The sun is setting, emphasising the melancholy notion of fading grandeur and the vast expanse of the desert foreground is populated by a crowd of Arabic travellers. Their caravan of camels is gathering on the banks of the lake to make encampment for the night. This narrative incident breathes life into the scene and contrasts with the ruins beyond. This was mentioned by the critic for The Times, who wrote ‘Some large figures placed in the extreme foreground serve to give significance and character to the picture’ (The Times, 6 May 1845, p. 6). John Ruskin disliked the inclusion of this throng of people and would have preferred in their place a solitary lizard or ibis to make a scene of abandonment. However he did recognise Roberts' ‘fidelity of intention and honesty of system’ and felt ‘his execution is dextrous and delicate’ (John Ruskin, Modern Painters, 1853, vol.1). This formula of painting romantic ruins behind foregrounds of contemporary human drama was a favourite of Roberts and would be used again for A Recollection of the Desert on the Approach of the Simoon painted in 1850 for Charles Dickens and Ruins of the Temple of Kom Ombos, Morning of 1853 (private collection).
Ruins of the Great Temple of Karnak has a prestigious provenance. It was bought from Roberts by a wealthy barrister, Joseph Arden (1799-1879) who paid £400, one of the highest prices paid for a picture by Roberts in the 1840s. Arden owned a diverse collection of pictures, displayed in his house in Cavendish Square in London and at Rickmansworth Park in Hertfordshire. He was a supporter of the young John Everett Millais, to whom he was introduced by William Thackeray and from who he purchased The Rescue (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) and its pendant Order of Release (Tate). He also commissioned Orientalist pictures by John Frederick Lewis and according to the Art Journal, Arden and his wife were ‘the most patriotic friends of contemporary Art to whom our school is indebted for its rapid elevation to the present degree of excellence’ (Art Journal, 1857) Despite his enthusiasm for art, Arden was criticised for now displaying his pictures to their advantage and Roberts’ own daughter Christine regretted his purchase of Ruins of the Temple of Karnac as she felt he did not have ‘taste enough to appreciate it and it will never be seen in his house’ (Christine Roberts’ journal, 9 April 1845). There may have been some truth to Miss Roberts’ opinion – whilst in Arden’s ownership the painting’s original title appears to have been forgotten and it was known only as The Caravan in the Desert – however, Arden was undeniably a great supporter of Roberts. In the same year that he bought Ruins of the Great Temple of Karnak Arden also acquired at auction Roberts' Cairo street-scene Bazaar of the Coppersmiths of 1842 and he owned at least five more examples by the artist. Arden’s interest in Roberts’ work seems to have inspired him to visit Egypt in 1846 to travel the Nile. Arden was sufficiently close to Roberts to be executor of his will in 1864. Following Arden’s own death in January 1879, his picture collection was dispersed at auction and all six paintings by Roberts were bought by a Spanish merchant and Governor of the Bank of England, John William Birch (1825-1897) whose wife Julia (1828-1917) was the eldest daughter of Arden. Julia and John William purchased Rickmansworth Park following Arden’s death and bought many of her father’s pictures from the auction in order to maintain the interior. Following Julia’s death aged eighty-nine, Rickmansworth Park passed to the widow of her eldest son who sold many of the pictures.
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