Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Rare coloured pictures of the Holy Land unearthed in Yorkshire

by Kathryn Hadley

Nineteenth century books containing the first detailed coloured images of the Holy Land ever to be published in the West, in 1842, have recently been found in the Yorkshire Museum Library. The books were found by volunteers whilst they were cataloguing the museum’s library. They consist of a complete version of The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia by David Roberts. The volume contains hand-coloured lithographs of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem, which he took during his visit to the Holy Land in 1938-39.

Roberts (1796-1864) was born in Edinburgh and was the first person to travel to the Holy Land with the specific intention to paint Christian sites, such as the Church of nativity in Bethlehem and the ancient city of Jerusalem, with a view to thereafter selling them in Britain.

The book was first published in 1842 and Roberts’s works were reproduced on a large scale and in colour. They were considerably expensive to produce and only 400 copies of the first edition were made. His project was, nevertheless, very successful and there was considerable demand for his books. Both Queen Victoria and the Tsar of Russia notably purchased copies. It was edited a second time in New York in 1855.

In Andrew Morrison’s words, Curator of Archaeology at the Museum:
‘David Roberts was one of the first “photo journalists” and his incredibly detailed paintings of the Middle East gave British society a fabulous insight into the everyday life of people in a world completely different from theirs […] Complete copies of the first edition of this books are extremely rare because so few were published and also because many were often taken apart, so that the prints could be sold separately.’

The museum is now working to trace the provenance of the books.

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