The Hypostyle Hall of the Great Temple at Abu Simbel, Egypt


The Hypostyle Hall of the Great Temple at Abu Simbel, Egypt  [ edit ]

In August 1838, the distinguished Scottish artist David Roberts embarked on an extraordinary eleven-month adventure in Egypt and the Holy Land. It was to be the journey of a lifetime. Roberts was determined to return with an accurate depiction of lands once celebrated in scripture and in antiquity but now almost unknown to Western visitors. He already enjoyed renown as a painter and illustrator, as a theatrical set designer at Drury Lane and Covent Garden, and as a friend and peer of such luminaries as David Wilkie, John Frederick Lewis, and J.M.W. Turner. Soon he was to crown his career as the foremost architectural and topographical artist of his era. Frequently clad in colorful Turkish garb, in the company of a few equally hardy Europeans, devious local guides, and a bristling armed escort, Roberts produced an incisive diary and hundreds of remarkable drawings and sketches that gave a vivid picture of what poet John Milton had called "the gorgeous East."

Roberts was among the earliest professional European artists to explore the region, and on his departure he realized that he possessed "one of the richest folios that ever left the East." The publication between 1842 and 1849 of 248 striking hand-tinted lithographs in The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia assured his pre-eminence.

As befit his era, Roberts tried to imbue his images of Egyptian temples with the scientific precision of an archeologist as well as with the drama of a romantic poet. While meticulous in capturing architectural details, at the same time he employed the skill of a set designer and stage painter to manipulate light and color and broad masses of paint to create a spectacle meant instantly to beguile his audience.

To soften the starkness of the desert and of monochrome stone edifices and to animate a scene, Roberts often used pictorial devices such as colorfully clad Arabs, strong contrasts of light and shade, or arresting weather effects. He might choose unusual perspectives to magnify monumentality. On occasion, artistic license compromised scientific objectivity in the interest of romanticism.

At the Great Temple at Abu Simbel, which Roberts reached on November 8, 1838, the artist characteristically admired both the quality of workmanship and the monumental dimensions. Inside, he was duly impressed with the loftiness of the "splendid hall" or pronaos, some 30 feet in height, and with the placid expression of the eight colossal standing statues representing the dominion and majesty of Pharaoh Ramses the Great. No detail escaped Roberts.

Abu Simbel posed problems. In this oil painting of 1849, Roberts makes a concerted effort to enliven the somber interior. He introduces a brightly lit foreground and paints a dozen Arab figures in colorful garments for scale and human interest. Delicate blue, green, and pink highlights dot the picture. Beneath the vivid hues of the ceiling, the walls and colossal statues themselves are faintly suffused with green, pink, and blue, lending liveliness to the whole. In a gesture evoking images from the brisk contemporary Victorian trade in mummies, the artist inserts two handsome mummy cases, decoratively striped in green and pink. At the center of the composition, Roberts paints a mummy, trussed with rope, perhaps in preparation for transport, possibly even destined for export to the burgeoning European market.




36.8 x 54.6 cm

Artist or Author

David Roberts




Yale British Art Center

Accession Number


Guiterman, Helen at al. Artist Adventurer: David Roberts, 1796-1864. Edinburgh: Scottish Arts Council, 1981.

Guiterman, Helen and Briony Llewellyn. David Roberts. Oxford: Phaidon Press and Barbicon Art Gallery, 1986.