This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967
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 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 Henry 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.
Douglas Dundas, 'Martens, Conrad (1801–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/martens-conrad-2434/text3239, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 11 March 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967