The son of a German merchant, Conrad Martens (1801-1878) was born in London. After his father died in 1816, Conrad decided that, rather than pursue a mercantile career, he would follow the example of his two bothers and become a painter. He trained as a watercolour artist, studying landscape painting with Copley Fielding, one of the foremost art teachers in London. In the early 1820s he and his mother went to live near Exeter in Devon and for the next ten years he undertook sketching tours in Devon and the neighbouring counties. In 1833 he exhibited with the Royal Society of British Artists in London. In May 1833 Martens joined HMS Hyacinth on a voyage to the East Indies. Two months later, at Rio de Janeiro, he left the ship and journeyed to Montevideo, where he replaced the ailing Augustus Earle as the artist on the surveying vessel HMS Beagle, captained by Robert FitzRoy. He became a good friend of Charles Darwin, the naturalist on the ship. He left the Beagle at Valparaiso in 1834 and sailed to Tahiti and New Zealand. He reached Sydney in April 1835. He had not intended to remain in Australia, but he was to live there for the rest of his life.
Within a short time Martens was making sketching trips to the Blue Mountains, the Illawarra and Broken Bay. He opened a studio in Sydney and quickly built up a clientele of wealthy landowners and merchants, whose homes and estates he painted. During the depression of the 1840s he led a precarious existence, but he did very little commercial work. To augment his income, he produced lithograph views, such as Sketches in the Environs of Sydney (1850) and Sketches illustrative of the scenery of New South Wales (1851). In 1851 he made an extensive sketching tour through the Darling Downs and he visited Brisbane several times. In 1862 he was appointed the deputy parliamentary librarian. His reputation grew in his later years and he undertook commissions for both the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery of New South Wales.
For nearly forty years Martens was the leading landscape artist in New South Wales and the quality of his work was remarkably consistent. His early paintings of Sydney were in the tradition of picturesque topography, but like Turner he later tried to capture the romantic grandeur of his settings. In his numerous paintings of Sydney Harbour he was concerned with the effects of light, clouds and storms. He painted properties on the western plains and northern tablelands, but he was more attracted to the dramatic gorges and rock cliffs of the Blue Mountains and the bays and shores of Sydney Harbour.
The Petherick Collection, which was acquired in 1909, included three pencil drawings of Conrad Martens. The Nan Kivell Collection, purchased in 1959, contained 100 original works of Martens, including virtually all the non-Australian works in the collection. Nan Kivell also collected a number of lithographs of Martens.
Other paintings and drawings of Martins were purchased at auctions or from dealers and owners between about 1947 and 2004. In addition, works by Martens have been donated by Victor Bonham Carter (1953), Sir Edward Samson (1961), Ursula Hoff (1976), M.B. Boyd (1979) and Monica Newman (2002).
The small collection of books from the library of Conrad Martens was purchased from the Sydney booksellers Timothy and Anne McCormick in 1983.
Paintings and drawings
The Library holds 145 original works of Conrad Martens, consisting of four oil paintings, 91 watercolours, and 51 sepia wash, pencil and wash, or pencil drawings. It also has a number of his lithographs.
About 70 of the works, dating from 1835 to 1876, were painted or drawn in Australia. They include several watercolours of Sydney Harbour, Sydney Cove and Mosman Bay, views of Sydney and North Sydney, the Domain and the Botanic Gardens, as well as particular buildings such as Government House, Fort Denison, Lansdowne Bridge (Prospect Creek), a cottage at Blue’s Point, Tempe House (Arncliffe), the Rangers (Mosman) and Martens’ own home at St Leonards. There are two pencil sketches of the funeral of Phillip Parker King in Sydney in 1856. A number of works depict the Bathurst Road, Hartley, Lennox Bridge (Lapstone Hill) and other places in the Blue Mountains. Other New South Wales subjects include the Hawkesbury River, Camden Park, Lake Illawarra, Bungonia, Molong and Mount Wingen. A small number of works were painted on trips to Moreton Bay and Tasmania. They comprise views of Brisbane, the Glasshouse Mountains, Cunningham’s Gap and the coal mines in Tasman’s Peninsular.
Several works date from 1832-35, when Martens was voyaging in South American waters and crossing the Pacific. They include views of Tahiti, Valparaiso and Valparaiso Bay and a portrait of a South American bandit.
The other large group in the Library’s collection consists of the early watercolours painted by Martens on sketching trips in Devon, Cornwell, Somerset and Dorset. As well as general landscapes, coastal scenes, and studies of castles, bridges, boats, sailing ships and horses, there are views of Chagford and East Lynn (Devon), Dulverton and Minehead (Somerset) and Chideock and Portland (Dorset). There are also a number of figure studies.
The Library holds 30 books which were originally owned by Martens. Most of them are signed by Martens and a few contain annotations or inserts in his handwriting, with particular reference to writings of Ruskin. Published between 1777 and 1860, the books mainly deal with art history, painting and drawing technique, colour and pigments. The authors include Allan Cunningham, Charles Eastlake, William Gilpin, Charles Hayter, John Opie, John Ruskin and Ralph Wornum.
The paintings, drawings and prints of Conrad Martens are held in the Pictures Collection. They have been catalogued individually and most of them have been digitised.
The collection of books and manuscript fragments are held in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 6864. They occupy four boxes. They have been catalogued at the collection level.
Paintings and drawings of Conrad Martens are held in the La Trobe Library (State Library of Victoria) and the Mitchell Library (State Library of New South Wales), as well as most of the major art galleries in Australia. The Mitchell Library holds a collection of his notebooks and correspondence.
De Vries, Susanna, Conrad Martens: on the Beagle and in Australia, Brisbane, Pandanus, 1993
Dundas, Douglas, The Art of Conrad Martens, Melbourne, Macmillan, 1979
Ellis, Elizabeth, Conrad Martens: life & art, Sydney, State Library of New South Wales Press, 1994
Jones, Shar, Martens, Conrad, in The dictionary of Australian artists, edited by Joan Kerr, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 513-16