Also known as
Martha Snell Chauncy,
Miss M. S. Chauncey,
née Chauncy Martha Maria Snell Berkeley
England-born resident of Australia's southern states, Berkeley is best known for her large watercolours of Adelaide and as a gifted portraitist. The Art Gallery of South Australia holds a number of her locally produced works.
painter, was born at Keynsham near Bath, England, on 18 August 1813, younger daughter of William Chauncy and Theresa, née Lamothe. Martha’s mother died in 1818 and her father remarried, taking the family to live in the south of France in 1820. Believing French schools 'injurious to both faith and morals’, Mr Chauncy had his children taught at home. In 1825 the family returned to England. In 1826 Martha, followed by her elder sister Theresa ( Walker ), went to live with their paternal grandfather in Berkshire until his death in 1829. Theresa settled in London in 1832 and was soon joined by Martha. Both were members of Edward Irving’s church and their only recorded art lessons were obtained through it. According to Hylton, the 'good masters’ who taught them art – mentioned by their brother Philip – may have included the miniature painter Pierre Mejanel. In 1835 'Miss M.S. Chauncey [sic], Miniature Painter’ of 24 Seymour Place, London, had a portrait of a lady shown in the Royal Academy’s summer show.
Martha was living at Charmouth, Dorsetshire, on 11 October 1836, when she married Captain Charles Berkeley of the 60th Rifles. A week later, accompanied by Theresa, they left for South Australia on board the John Renwick . They arrived on 14 February 1837. Martha was one of several early settlers who painted views of the province as a conscious historical record of its early years. Unlike most, she also worked professionally, painting portraits and miniatures, which she appears to have sold – especially after the farming venture failed. One of her earliest known Adelaide miniatures is a watercolour portrait of the botanist Charles Algernon Wilson (1838, Art Gallery of South Australia [AGSA]). Other commissions included a portrait of the Governor’s wife (1843). She also had at least two daughters during these years.
The Catalogue of the Exhibition of Pictures: The Works of Colonial Artists (1847) lists 15 works by Mrs Berkeley and there were at least two in the following year’s exhibition (a complete catalogue is not known). Her surviving miniature of Howard Ind (1848, p.c.) was probably another. The majority were portraits, including Lady Agar Ellis and her Child and Duchess of Sutherland and Child (possibly the untitled watercolour reproduced by Shirley Cameron-Wilson, p.c.). There were several landscapes of famous beauty spots in England, Wales and Germany, but only a single subject picture, Lorenzo and Jessica – the Merchant of Venice (unfinished) . Her annotated copy of the 1847 and part-1848 catalogue (SLSA) corrects the attribution to a Miss Potter of a view of Carisbrook Castle on the Isle of Wight, noting that this was her work. In addition, Berkeley noted: 'I exhibited one of Mr Anstey’s house omitted in this catalogue… Also one of Mrs Andrews playing her harp’. The last is now thought to be that in the Art Gallery of South Australia – one of her most elaborate and attractive works. In 1848 Martha and her three daughters visited Theresa in Sydney and a moonlit river scene by 'Berkeley’ was included in the Fords’ 1848-49 Sydney Art Union.
Berkeley continued to paint portraits, mainly watercolour on ivory miniatures. In 1848 she began painting in oils, a technique probably learned in London. Several oil paintings were raffled locally and a landscape (medium unspecified) by 'Mrs Berkeley’ was included in the Fords’ art union at Sydney in 1848 49. The best known of her large watercolours of Adelaide and its environs in North Terrace, Adelaide, looking East South East (1839, AGSA), a charming view of the ambitious infant town painted in a competent English picturesque style, with elegant gentlemen on horseback in the foreground and a characteristic frame of drooping eucalypts. Torrens Bridge (1842, p.c.) and other views also survive (AGSA, p.cs). Berkeley frequently included Aborigines in her paintings, sometimes simply as exotic staffage but occasionally in a more personal way. Her major work is a large watercolour, The First Dinner Given to the Aborigines (AGSA), depicting the three Adelaide tribes being entertained by Governor Gawler on 1 November 1838. The Aborigines sit awaiting the distribution of biscuits, meat, tea and blankets, while their three chiefs, dressed in new jackets provided by the settlers, stand together at the inner edge of the circle surrounding the Governor, the Protector of Aborigines and their wives. Behind the Aborigines is a standing ring of settlers, which includes obvious portraits. Berkeley added a pencil description of the event on the back of the painting in 1847, which confirms her aim of recording an important historical event for posterity. Her meticulous detail contrasts markedly with the undistinguished distant watercolour view of the same event painted by Mary Hindmarsh .
Until Jane Hylton’s 1994 exhibition of works by the two Chauncy sisters (AGSA), Martha Berkeley was best known for these large watercolours of Adelaide and its environs. Thanks to a large donation and sale of works to the AGSA from a Tasmanian descendant in 1994, she is now also appreciated as a gifted portraitist. Oil on metal portraits of the artist, her husband, their three eldest daughters and of Theresa and her first husband, in particular, have survived in excellent condition. A sketchier watercolour depicts the family group and is a rare example of a woman artist depicting father as well as mother – Martha herself – with the children.
This particular father, however, left Adelaide in 1852 to join the Victoria Police force. Martha and their four daughters moved to Launceston (Tas.) to spend three years with Theresa and her husband. Martha joined Charles at Portland in 1855, but he died the following year. Their colonial life had always been financially precarious and Martha was left destitute. In 1856-60 she was working as matron at Melbourne’s National Model and Training School where the headmistress was the novelist and painter, Ellen Davitt .
In the 1860s Martha’s fortunes apparently improved. She became part owner of a country property near Merton, north-east of Melbourne and spent several months there each year painting watercolour views. In 1867-76 she lived in St Kilda Street, Brighton. She revisited England in 1877 and made her last known drawings. Back at Melbourne she lived at Hawthorn, then at a daughter’s home at Burwood Road, Camberwell. She died in Camberwell on 7 July 1899.