Well-travelled (South America, South Pacific and Australasia) English colonial watercolourist, oil painter, lithographer, sketcher and landscape artist who is one of the better known 19th century artists of Sydney. Martens kept good records and was able to make a living out of his work. However, he did work as a librarian and sometimes paid off wine bills with drawings.
landscape painter and lithographer, was born at Crutched Friars near the Tower of London. His father Christoph Heinrich Martens, a Hamburg merchant, had married an English woman, Rebecca Turner, and settled in London after the expiry of his term as Austrian consul. Their three sons, John William, Henry and Conrad, all became artists. The family moved to Exeter in 1816 after the death of their father; Conrad’s first known picture was made in nearby Dorset in 1827. Like his contemporary John Ruskin, he was a pupil of Copley Fielding (1789-1835), a prolific watercolourist and the most fashionable teacher of his time. Copies in early sketchbooks and Martens’s later writings indicate that he was well versed in academic landscape painting, the traditions of the English watercolour school, theories about painting associated with Claude and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the work of Turner, Varley, Cox, Girtin and Burnett. It is possible that Martens’s interest in atmospheric effects may initially have been stimulated by Fielding, a painter noted for his depiction of rain clouds and mist.
In 1832 Martens sailed on HMSHyacinth for a three-year voyage to India. On reaching Rio de Janeiro he left the ship and travelled to Montevideo. There, in October 1833, he replaced the ailing Augustus Earle as artist on the hydrographic survey voyage of HMSBeagle commanded by Captain Robert FitzRoy . His shipmate, the young Charles Darwin, found him pleasant company even if he had 'rather too much of the schoolmaster about him’ and the two became lasting friends. During the voyage Martens worked indefatigably. His association with Darwin and the other scientists in the Beagle heightened his perception of landscape forms, climatic effects and the unique qualities of the exotic coastal areas through which they passed. It may also have resulted in his life-long interest in astronomy.
Martens left the Beagle at Valparaiso in October 1834 when supernumeraries were offloaded to cut costs. He remained there for three months working with Herr Rugendas, an 'exceedingly able’ German artist, until sailing for Tahiti in the Peruvian . There he spent seven weeks sketching. Several of his Tahitian drawings were later purchased in Sydney by FitzRoy and used to illustrate the second volume of FitzRoy’s published narrative. In March 1835 Martens sailed for Sydney via New Zealand in the Black Warrior , intending to continue his travels; he carried with him a letter of introduction from FitzRoy to Admiral Phillip Parker King . Sydney Harbour entranced Martens from the moment he made his first sketches as his ship entered the Heads. He remained in Sydney for nearly forty-three years—the rest of his life. Almost immediately he travelled to the Illawarra region and the Blue Mountains, wandering, according to the Australian of 31 July 1835, 'in search of the picturesque’ and making sketches from which he later executed paintings on commission. He rode a pony and frequently camped in isolated scenic areas, sleeping on at least one occasion in a cave. The sketches he submitted to the newspapers on his return were greeted with acclaim and he was able to secure both commissions and students within three months.
Martens rapidly built up a clientele of leading citizens for whom he painted large watercolours and oils of their houses and estates throughout the settled areas of the colony, New South Wales landscapes (particularly Sydney Harbour scenes) and views of South America and Tahiti. His patrons included Governor Bourke, Lady Franklin, Alexander Macleay (the former colonial secretary) and his sons, the Macarthur and King families and other 'pure merino’ landowners, eminent clergymen, members of the judiciary and such leading merchants as A.B. Spark, Robert Campbell and J.B. Montefiore. The four designs he made for banknotes in 1839 may have been for the Bank of Australia, whose directors included several of his patrons. In 1841 a drawing of St Andrew’s Cathedral, commissioned by Bishop W.G. Broughton , was lithographed in England and advertised in Sydney as his work, although his name does not appear on the print. During this period he did little work other than painting. His account books list only three pupils during the 1830s: two were fellow artists, Robert Russell and James Stuart .
Martens’s success enabled him to live in the then fashionable Rocks area; his studio was in Pitt Street above George William Evans 's stationery and book shop. In 1837 he married Jane Brackenbury, daughter of William Carter, later Sydney’s first registrar-general, in St James’s Church of England. Their two daughters were born in 1838 and 1839. A son, William Conrad, born in 1844, lived only six weeks. That year the family moved to a sandstone cottage called Rockleigh Grange built on five acres owned by Mrs Martens at St Leonards on the North Shore and Martens worked for some years from a studio in the garden. He was a churchwarden and generous supporter of St Thomas’s, North Sydney, where the family worshipped. He helped design the first church building (with the architect James Hume), carved some of its furnishings including the font (extant) and presented its communion plate. Such was his Christian commitment that he was unable to accept the evolutionary theories later expounded by Darwin (unlike his good friend Rev. W. B. Clarke , St Thomas’s incumbent).
By 1843 the economic depression in Sydney had ruined many of Martens’s patrons and its effect on the artist was disastrous. That year he secured only six commissions. To augment his income he published a lithograph, Sydney from St. Leonards , which was printed in London. Disappointed by its quality, he prepared the stones himself for the series Sketches in the Environs of Sydney in 1850 and had the book printed in Sydney. Throughout the 1840s he maintained a precarious existence, rarely travelling away from home, selling small drawings to a diverse clientele and accepting more students. Several times he produced drawings in payment of his wine bill.
Unlike other artists working in the colonies Martens undertook little commercial work, but he did prepare a heading for the Illustrated Sydney News (first series) which appeared as a wood engraving from the first issue of September 1854. His sketch of Sydney Harbour, commissioned by W. & F. Ford, may have been used as the frontispiece for their 1851 Almanac although only the name of the engraver, John Carmichael , appears on it. Martens was jubilant when he netted £60 from the Fords’ art union in 1849. He voiced hopes of money expected from London, possibly a legacy, in a letter of 1850 written to his brother Henry with whom he maintained a warm and frank correspondence. (Henry Martens appears to have lived in similarly straitened circumstances and his plans to join the family in NSW never eventuated.) Henry probably supervised the preparation in London of Conrad’s lithographic View of Sydney, N.S.W. 1854 , published in Sydney by the bookseller Frederick Mader.
Despite his financial difficulties, Martens did not undertake one-man exhibitions such as those mounted by Maurice Felton and Marshall Claxton . His work, however, was displayed in most group exhibitions held in Sydney and often in other colonial centres. Two New South Wales landscapes by Martens were lent by G.W. Evans (by then back at Van Diemen’s Land) to the 1845 Hobart Town Art Exhibition; one of his Sydney views was shown at the 1848 exhibition of Works of Colonial Artists in Adelaide. His landscapes were lent to major Melbourne exhibitions from the first (the Victorian Fine Arts Society’s Exhibition in 1853), as well as to regional shows, including the 1869 Ballarat Mechanics Institute Exhibition.
Martens’s thirteen watercolours in the first (1847) exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia at Sydney had a mixed reception. On 26 July the Sydney Morning Herald critic described them as 'bold, free and artistical’ yet compared them unfavourably with those by John Skinner Prout . One of the four watercolours of Burragalong Cavern (AGNSW) submitted by Martens to the society’s second exhibition in 1849 was reviewed in scathing terms, the Herald critic writing on 27 December: 'It is to be lamented that this clever artist does not keep his eccentricities under proper control … so outr é a subject as an artist’s easel, apparently a sort of advertisement, is a piece of childish affectation’ (Martens had placed it in the middle of an otherwise deserted cave). Such carping, however, did not apparently affect Martens’s local reputation or popularity. Sydney Harbour views were commissioned from him for inclusion in the New South Wales courts of various international exhibitions: at Paris in 1855 and 1867 and at London in 1862.
Late in 1851 Martens was able to raise sufficient capital to undertake a five-month-long sketching tour to Brisbane and the Darling Downs, returning overland to Sydney through the New England and Hunter River districts. The journey generated new pastoral patrons and continued to secure him commissions for some years, while his paintings of Brisbane and the settlements and stations of the Darling Downs are the earliest comprehensive visual records of the area. Martens’s income increased and he was able to rent his own modest studios in Pitt Street from about 1854 until 1859. Previously, after his studio in the garden of the family home proved unsatisfactory, he had accepted studio space from at least two better-heeled colleagues; from June 1854 to 1855 he shared the Pitt Street attics above T.S. Mort’s auction rooms with Pierre Nuyts , afterwards apparently working there on his own.
In 1855 Conrad Martens was elected president of the newly formed Sydney Sketching Club and delivered its inaugural lecture at the Australian Subscription Library in March. An exhibition of landscapes by members was mounted for the meeting, attended by leading Sydney citizens including the governor. The Sydney Morning Herald of 22 March printed excerpts from his lecture and stated that it was 'most interesting and its success was enhanced in no small degree by copious illustrations and explanations which for their clearness could hardly be misunderstood’. In it Martens explained his approach to nature and art, emphasising the need to study art in order to see nature. He spoke at length about the practice of painting and outlined his own techniques, particularly the handling of colour and mass.
In 1862, when the rigours of his freelance life were beginning to tell, a North Sydney patron and neighbour, Alexander Berry, helped Martens, then in his sixties, to secure the post of deputy parliamentary librarian with a regular income and duties. From then on his artistic activity declined and an increasing proportion of the works listed in his account books were gifts. He made few expeditions away from Sydney, although his visits to the Lithgow Valley in 1872 and 1873 resulted in some of his most spectacular paintings: the series of Zig-Zag Railway watercolours. He exhibited work in art unions of 1875, 1876 and 1877.
In old age Martens’ importance was recognised by a developing Australian art establishment. He was appointed a judge for the Fine Arts section of the 1870 Sydney Intercolonial Exhibition (where he showed four paintings non-competitively). In 1872 he was commissioned to paint a watercolour, One of the Falls on the Apsley , for the National Gallery of Victoria, an honour enjoyed by few colonial artists. The painting was done from sketches made on his northern tour about twenty years earlier. Two years later, a second watercolour on the same theme was the first painting commissioned by the newly-formed National Gallery of New South Wales; it was exhibited with the New South Wales Academy of Art in 1875.
Martens died on 21 August 1878. He was buried in St Thomas’s Cemetery at North Sydney alongside his daughter Elizabeth, who had predeceased him. He was survived by his wife and his daughter Rebecca , who had been his pupil. After his death, the Art Committee of the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition announced its intention of mounting a retrospective exhibition of his work, 'deeming it to be a fitting and well-deserved tribute to the memory of the artist, who has done so much towards illustrating the scenery of the colony’.
Martens appears to have been the only free professional painter to settle permanently in Sydney during the first half of the nineteenth century who was able to support a family from the proceeds of his work. He had some involvement with others who passed through. Maurice Felton painted at least one and possibly two portraits of him. When Marshall Claxton came to Sydney in 1850, Martens initially enthused to his brother about the growing friendship between their families and accepted an offer of work space in Claxton’s studio, where he was delighted to learn 'some good dodges in the way of laying on colour’. Sadly, the friendship did not last.
Most other artists in Sydney were part-time painters and Martens was associated with some of them. Samuel Elyard , Frederick Garling and Oswald Bloxsome purchased paintings from him. His shipmate from the Beagle , Captain Owen Stanley , took lessons from him in Sydney and also purchased several paintings. Many years after Robert Russell had been his pupil and long after Russell had moved to Melbourne, Martens was corresponding with him. Perhaps his longest and most productive association was with the architect Edmund Thomas Blacket. After taking drawing lessons from Martens in 1846, Blacket continued to commission work from him until the 1870s and paid, on at least one occasion, by allowing Martens the use of his office-studio.
Martens is a unique figure in colonial painting. Throughout long professional isolation he maintained a consistently high standard of work that was based on soundly considered and articulated theory. Although he kept abreast of developments in England by reading magazines such as the Art Journal , his ideas on the artistic interpretation of landscape were modified by his keen observations of the Australian environment and by local market requirements. His attitude to Australian conditions can be seen in his comment: 'preserving the character and true delineation of the trees, plants etc. in the landscapes of this land … I have ever considered of great consequence so long as it does not amount to absolute servility’. He worked systematically, keeping records of all his commissions and making frequent technical notes. His extant sketchbooks form a comprehensive and well-documented record of his activities, and he used drawings from them, sometimes many years later, as the basis for commissioned watercolours and oils.