Born on 2 October 1796 in Stockbridge, near Edinburgh where he was first apprenticed to a house-painter. He became a scenic artist, active in the north, before coming to London in 1822. He continued to work for the theatre, but turned increasingly to architectural and topographical subjects which he exhibited at the British Institution, London 1824-59 and Royal Academy, London 1826-64.
He was elected Associate Royal Academician, London 1838 and Royal Academician 1841, and was President of the Society of British Artists in 1830 before resigning in 1834. He became an inveterate traveller, his most celebrated expeditions being those to Spain and North Africa in 1832-3 and to Egypt and the Holy Land in 1838-9. His work became widely known through engraving. In 1841 his daughter married the second son of Elhanan Bicknell, one of his principal patrons. Roberts died in London on 25 November 1864. He left a Manuscript Journal and a 'Thumbnail Sketch' Journal, recording 252 of his oil paintings, which remain in private collections.