Saturday, August 27, 2011

Conrad Martens - Landscape Painter of Colonial Australia.

After an adventurous early life, Martens settled permanently in Australia in 1835.  Over the next four decades, he would produce numerous sketches and watercolours, chiefly of the landscape of his adopted homeland.

Conrad Martens, ca. 1840, by Maurice Felton

Born in London in 1801, Conrad Martens was the son of a German merchant from Hamburg, who had settled in England. His mother was English. Martens studied landscape painting and over the next ten years worked as a watercolourist mainly in the south of England.

Rio de Janeiro, Guanabara Bay

Intending to voyage to India, he sailed to Rio de Janeiro in 1833, where he produced many pencil sketches and watercolours.

While there, Martens heard of a position available on the expedition ship Beagle, whose artist had to withdraw because of illness.


He joined the Beagle in Montevideo in July 1833. Also on board was the British naturalist, Charles Darwin.  On board the Beagle, Martens and Darwin forged a close friendship which would last a lifetime.

Straits of Magellan

The Beagle sailed south and rounded the Horn through the Straits of Magellan, paying an extended visit to Tierra del Fuego. 

Mount Sarmiento, Tierra del Fuego, showing the Beagle

Martens left the Beagle at Valparaiso in October 1834, and after spending some time in Tahiti and New Zealand, he sailed to Australia.


Martens arrived in Sydney in 1835 and would spend the rest of his life in Australia.

Entrance to Sydney Harbour

He initially sketched around Sydney and the Blue Mountains and soon began to receive commissions.

View of Sydney Harbour 1836
The Beagle sailed into Sydney Harbour in 1836.

The Beagle in Sydney Harbour

Jemmy Button farewells the Beagle
Darwin visited Martens and commissioned several watercolours, among which was a watercolour of Jemmy Button waving farewell to the Beagle. He was one of four natives from Tierra del Fuego taken to England on the first voyage of the Beagle in 1830.  After being put on display, they became celebrities. In 1831 they were returned to their homeland on the second voyage of the Beagle.  On board was Conrad Martens who sketched the event.

Over the years, Martens continued to correspond with Charles Darwin. In 1862, he congratulated his friend on the success of the Origin of Species, sending him a watercolour of Brisbane River.

Brisbane River, Kangaroo Point and Township

During his long career, Martens was faced with several long periods of financial insecurity as the colonial economy ebbed and flowed between boom and recession.  Martens supplemented his income by giving art lessons.  He also travelled widely seeking commissions, including a trip to Brisbane and the Darling Down where he visited the stations of wealthy squatters. 

Canning Downs Homestead, Darling Downs

After completing a five month long sketching tour, he returned overland to Sydney through the New England and Hunter River Districts.

View of Sydney Harbour from Rosebank

The paintings of Martens display the European tradition of landscape, especially of the 17th Century French artist Claude Lorrain.  He applied his skills to evoke the beauties of the antipodean landscape, so different to that of Europe.

Bennelong Point, Sydney,from the North Shore

In 1863 Martens was able to become financially secure after taking on the position of Assistant Librarian in the Australian Parliamentary Library. As a result, his artistic output was restricted.

Conrad Martens in old age

He died in Sydney on 21 August 1878 leaving a great legacy of images of Colonial Australia.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2011.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is
    also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,

    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.