This work is explained by the artist in a text, which accompanied the earliest version of the painting when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1841. The text ends with a quote from ‘The Book of Lamentations’.
‘During Easter, Christian pilgrims from all parts of the East assemble at Jerusalem, from whence, accompanied by the Governor, and escorted by a strong guard, they proceed in a body to bathe in the river Jordan. The scene represents them coming in sight of the holy city on their return.
‘How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary! Her gates are desolate; all her beauty is departed.’’
Other versions of this work by Roberts are at Royal Holloway College (1841), Norwich Castle Museum (1842) and Leicester City Museum and Art Gallery (1860). (A small oil sketch, perhaps painted on site, is in a private collection.) In meeting demand for paintings of this scene, Roberts employed a technical shortcut: the Leicester version is painted over David Lucas's unfinished mezzotint of the scene, stuck down onto the canvas. This version of 1855 is also on paper; probably on another copy of Lucas's print.
David Roberts, son of a shoemaker from Stockbridge, Edinburgh, began his career at the age of ten as an apprentice to a house painter. On completing his apprenticeship he was employed on the decoration of Scone Palace in Perthshire. He later became a scene painter for James Bannister, who ran a circus in Edinburgh, and at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, before moving to London in 1822, where he turned to easel painting. Roberts exhibited at the British Institution, Society of British Artists and Royal Academy. He is best-known for topographical paintings and illustrations resulting from trips to Spain and the Middle East. He died aged 68 at his home in Fitzroy Street, near Tottenham Court Road, London, and is buried at Norwood Cemetery.
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