Roberts was the son of shoe maker John Roberts (1754 - 1840). He began his career as an apprentice to a house painter. Later he joined a travelling circus and became a scene painter in theatres working at Carlisle, Edinburgh and Glasgow. He moved to London in 1822 and continued to produce theatre sets at Drury Lane and Covent Garden.
The artist visited Normandy on a sketching tour in 1824 and exhibited his work at the Society of British Artists in the same year. He went on to exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1826 and to become an associate in 1838 and a full academician in 1841.
Roberts travelled extensively throughout his life in Europe and the near east, including Jerusalem, Egypt, Lebanon and Beirut. The east was Roberts’s greatest source of inspiration. He was renowned as an artist for his ability to balance light and darkness in his compositions, as well as his vibrant use of colour. He received a Freedom of the City of Edinburgh in 1858.