Conrad   Martens

(1801 - 21 August 1878)

Conrad Martens (1801-1878), artist, was born at Crutched Friars near the Tower of London, the son of J. C. H. Martens, a German merchant from Hamburg who had been appointed Austrian consul to London, where he married an Englishwoman. When his consular term expired Martens set up as a merchant in London. His three sons became artists. Conrad Martens received his training in landscape painting from Copley Fielding, who was the most popular teacher of his time. From him Martens learned the principles of picture-making which stood by him in his later isolation in Australia. After his father's death in 1816, the family moved to Exeter whence Martens practised his water-colour painting in the Devonshire landscape.

About 1832, Martens accepted an offer from Captain Francis Blackwood of H.M.S. Hyacinth of a three-year voyage to India. Whilst at Rio de Janeiro he heard that Captain FitzRoy of the Beagle, leader of a scientific survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, wanted an artist to replace Augustus Earle who was leaving the expedition because of ill health.

Martens joined the Beagle at Montevideo, and became associated with a group of observant scientists which included Charles Darwin. Without losing his feeling for the picturesque, Martens now became more concerned with factual topography, but the varied interests of the expedition's members greatly widened his experience and had a very positive effect on his later work in Australia. That a lasting friendship developed between him and Darwin is shown by subsequent correspondence.

Probably because Captain FitzRoy was obliged to dispense with his second ship, Martens left the Beagle at Valparaiso in October 1834, and on 3 December sailed in the Peruvian for Tahiti, where he spent some time sketching. In March 1835, he sailed for New Zealand, and six weeks [later] arrived in Sydney, which became his home for the rest of his life. It had not been his intention to remain in Australia but he was soon at work and within six months had made sketching expeditions to the Illawarra, the Blue Mountains and Broken Bay.

His first residence was in Cumberland Street in the fashionable Rocks area, and from a Pitt Street studio he gave lessons in drawing and painting. In 1837, he married Jane Brackenbury, a daughter of William Carter, later master in equity and registrar of the Supreme Court. Their first child Rebecca was born in 1838, and the second daughter Elizabeth in 1839. A son, born in 1844, died in infancy.

Martens had a liking for the North Shore of Sydney with its panoramic vistas of the harbour and foreshores, and in 1844, built a house at St. Leonard's. But the 1840s were lean years, and at one time he appears to have sought some financial help from his brother, in London. To augment his income he produced a lithographic 'view of Sydney from the North Shore', hand-coloured prints of which sold for a guinea. Later, in 1850, he issued Sketches in the Environs of Sydney, a series of twenty lithographs in five parts. For his water-colours Martens found his purchasers among the élite of Sydney's residents, and among the well-to-do landowners whose houses and holdings he painted. His landscapes show that he worked in New South Wales on the South Coast, and at Bong Bong, Lithgow, Scone and Walcha and in New England. He visited Brisbane several times, and in 1851, made an extensive sketching tour through the Darling Downs.

Apart from his travels, the theme of Sydney Harbour occupied Martens consistently over a period of thirty-five years. He pictured the harbour under spacious skies, disposing lights and shadows over its headlands with rare compositional skill. He could command the wide sweep of harbour landscape enveloped in pearly atmosphere, yet take note of the characteristic sandstone formations interspersed with banksia and eucalypts in the foreground. His awareness of the European tradition of landscape, deriving from Claude, his curiosity about his new environment, and his reaction to its light all combined with his technical skill to create water-colour landscapes of an extremely high order. He stood alone in his period. His painting confirms principles propounded in a lecture on landscape painting that he delivered in Sydney in 1856. He advocated concentrating the strongest darks in the foreground, and using the highest lights and the deepest darks in such a way as to emphasize the principal objects.

As the rigours of a landscape painter's life began to tell on the ageing Martens, his friend Alexander Berry found a post for him in 1863, as a parliamentary librarian. Eight years later, in a letter to the architect and surveyor Robert Russell, one of his earlier pupils, he wrote: 'I still continue to paint, and have several commissions, but have only a little time at my disposal as you may well suppose'. In his later years he developed an interest in astronomy and acquired a telescope from London. His notes and correspondence indicate more than a superficial interest and suggest that he carried his study to some depth.

He died on 21 August 1878, and was buried at St Thomas's cemetery, North Sydney, where the rest of his family are also buried. The font in this church, his place of worship for many years, is his handiwork. A portrait of Martens by Dr Maurice Felton is in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, which also houses a comprehensive collection of Martens's water-colours and oils. He is also well represented in the Dixson Galleries of the Public Library of New South Wales, and the National Art Galleries of New South Wales and Victoria. An impressive group of his landscapes is owned by Mr. K. R. Stewart of Sydney.

Select Bibliography:
L. Lindsay, Conrad Martens: The Man and His Art (Syd, 1920)
B. Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific 1768-1850 (Oxford, 1960)
J. Gray, Conrad Martens (B.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1959)
Conrad Martens, correspondence and notebooks (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details:
Douglas Dundas, 'Martens, Conrad (1801–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, first published in hardcopy, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967.

English-born landscape painter active in Australia from 1835.

Conrad Martens' father was a merchant who came originally to London as Austrian Consul; Conrad was born in "Crutched Friars" near Tower Hill. Like his two brothers, John William and Henry, he studied landscape painting under the prominent watercolourist Copley Fielding.

In 1832, he joined the ship Hyacinth as a topographic artist. In Montevideo near the end of 1833, he met Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, who engaged him as a draughtsman to replace the ship's artist Augustus Earle who had fallen ill. In this way he joined the second voyage of HMS Beagle and soon struck up a lifelong friendship with Charles Darwin who was taking part in the expedition as a self-financing gentleman naturalist and companion to the captain. They sailed south to Patagonia, reaching Port Desire on 23 December 1833. Here Martens shot a rhea which they enjoyed eating before Darwin realised that this was the rare smaller species he had been told of by the gauchos, and preserved the remains. Martens left the Beagle at Valparaiso in the second half of 1834, and took passage to Sydney via Tahiti, arriving in 1835.

Martens achieved instant success in Sydney as the most proficient and prolific landscape artist in the colony. The Beagle arrived in 1836, and Darwin and Captain Fitzroy commissioned a number of paintings from the Beagle's voyages in Tierra Del Fuego and the Pacific. Other large commissions followed, and in 1837, some of Martens' Australian watercolours were exhibited at the Royal Society in London. In 1839, however, a drought triggered an economic recession which was to last until the 1850s, and commissions became increasingly difficult. In the 1840s he turned to lithographs, which allowed him to sell the same work many times over - his 'View of Sydney from the North Shore' was especially popular.

In late 1851, Martens sailed to Brisbane, travelling back across the Great Dividing Range to the Darling Downs, then south through New England to Sydney, staying en route with squatters and pastoralists, drawing their houses and properties, and hoping for commissions. The plan succeeded, and Martens was eventually commissioned to paint over seventy watercolours, nearly forty of which are still known today.

He exhibited at the Victorian Fine Arts Society in Melbourne in 1853, and at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1855. Eventual improvement in the Australian economy in the later 1850s led to an increase in significant commissions. A famous painting is "North Head, Sydney Harbour" (1854).

In 1862, he received a message from Darwin, and replied congratulating him on the success of The Origin of Species. He sent Darwin a watercolour of Brisbane River and exhibited at the International Exhibition in London. In 1863, he became Assistant Librarian in the Parliamentary Library, securing his financial position, but severely curtailing the time he could spend on artistic work. Nevertheless, he exhibited at the Paris International Exhibition in 1867. He received his first public commission in 1872, from the Victorian Gallery (later National Gallery of Victoria), for a watercolour of Apsley Falls near Waterloo, and a second similar commission in 1875 from the New South Wales Academy of Arts (later Art Gallery of New South Wales), of whose Council he became a member in 1877.

From the later 1860s Martens suffered from angina, and he died from a heart attack on 21 August 1878.


Some of the first artists to visit the infant colony of New South Wales were landscape painters. By the time European explorers and settlers had moved over the Blue Mountains in the 1820s, watercolour had firmly established itself around the British Empire as the preferred painting medium for landscape artists as it was both inexpensive and portable.

The London-born artist Conrad Martens (1801-1878) first came to Australia in 1835. Like fellow painter Augustus Earle, Martens had been employed by the pioneer naturalist, Charles Darwin as ship artist on the voyage of the HMS Beagle. Martens was a great admirer of the pioneering English landscape painter, J M W Turner and throughout his painting career tried to emulate some of the painting techniques pioneered by his artistic hero.

Although he had travelled to other areas of the Lithgow district it was not until late in life that Martens visited the Crown Ridge on the western edge of Capertee Valley. The Crown Ridge peak is now officially known as Blackman’s Crown after an early explorer of the region, John Blackman (c.1792-1868). The Mudgee Road from Wallerawang to Capertee still passes around the eastern side of Blackman’s Crown on the edge of the Capertee Valley making it one of the most recognisable landmarks in the district.

Unlike most artists, Martens kept detailed diary notes of his travels, painting projects and commissions. From these entries we know he spent a few days at Blackman’s Crown in December 1874. He stayed at the Crown Ridge Inn, a seemingly popular public house located on the southern side of the peak. One pencil study by Martens shows the Crown Ridge Inn with the Crown in the background. This inn no longer stands but some of its foundations can still be seen about 20 metres west of the present-day road alignment during winter when the grass is low.

Martens produced a series of detailed pencil drawings on site showing the Crown Ridge Inn, the Crown and the picturesque Capertee Valley below. He worked these studies up into three large watercolours some time after returning to Sydney. Two of these works are now in the Mitchell Library collection in Sydney while one remains in private ownership.

© Copyright: Capertee Heritage New South Wales.

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