A lithograph of David Roberts' 1838 sketch, "The Great Temple of Aboo Simble," on display at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Visitors to the Hallie Ford Museum of Art this summer can take a journey down the Nile, seeing the temple of Ramses II and the Pyramids of Giza as they appeared nearly 200 years ago.

The exhibit, “David Roberts: Artist and Traveler,” has been over 40 years in the making, displaying about 60 prints from the Scottish sketch artist whose depictions of Egyptian landmarks and architecture in the 1830s helped galvanize European interest in Egyptology and travel outside the continent.

John Olbrantz, the museum’s director, first discovered Roberts’ art in the late 1970s, where he was organizing an exhibit on Egypt for the Bellevue Museum of Art in Washington. He saw Roberts’ detailed line sketches in a book, depicting scenes like tombs of ancient pharaohs and the architecture of Cairo as seen from outside the city walls.

“I absolutely fell in love with them. They were so well done. They captured sort of the essence of what I imagined Egypt was like at the beginning of the 19th century,” Olbrantz said.

Ever since, Olbrantz said he’s intended to organize an exhibition of Roberts’ work and has been collecting material. He’s been working more intently on the project over the past year and a half.

The Hallie Ford exhibit, on display through Aug. 27, draws primarily from the collection of Ken Sheppard, a Seattle-area attorney who’s one of the foremost collectors of the artist’s work.

Accompanying the exhibit is a new book by Olbrantz on Robets’ life, his work and the context he worked in, where travel and travel magazines were just becoming popular in western Europe.

Roberts, born in 1796, grew up in a poor family. He showed interest as a child in copying engraving and illustration, but his parents couldn’t afford to send him to art school, Olbrantz said. Instead, at 12, he was apprenticed to a house painter and decorator where he learned painting techniques.

Following that, he worked as a theatrical scene painter in Scotland and London.

“He had no formal training as an artist. He was purely self-taught,” Olbrantz said. But those experiences gave him an eye for architecture and the highly detailed sketches he would later be known for.

Roberts first major trip for art was to Spain from 1832-33, where he sketched mosques, churches and cityscapes in intricate detail. He returned with about 300 sketches, selling them to a publisher, and worked with lithographers to make prints of the scenes he sketched.

John Olbrantz, director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, traces Scottish artist David Robert's journey up the Nile in 1838-39 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

In 1838, he set off for Egypt and the Holy Land, self-financing the trip after failing to secure a publisher. The resulting sketches rendered in intricate detail many major Egyptian landmarks and artifacts, often including people in the foreground to give a sense of the impressive scale of monuments to ancient pharaohs.

Many of his sketches show tombs and statues still partially covered in sand which has since been cleared away and excavated, Olbrantz said. 

On his return to Europe, he published a collection of his sketches.

In addition to influencing the fields of Egyptology and biblical archaeology, Olbrantz said his work documents what travel was like in the 19th century. Many of his sketches were reprinted in travel magazines, helping to spur European interest in traveling to the Middle East.

“He was an important but largely overlooked artist,” Olbrantz said. “He had a tremendous impact.”

The Hallie Ford Museum of Art, 700 State St., is open Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for seniors and $3 for educators or college students with ID. Free admission on Tuesdays.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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