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Conrad Martens

England, Australia 1801-1878
After accompanying naturalist Charles Darwin as a topographical artist on The Beagle in 1833-34, Martens settled in Sydney in 1835. He soon established himself as one of the most sought-after artists in the colony and was best known for his atmospheric views of Sydney Harbour. Another of his watercolours – Apsley Falls 1874 – was the first Australian work acquired by the Gallery.

View of the Heads, Port Jackson 1853

This dramatic watercolour of the entrance to Sydney Harbour conveys something of the perilousness of 19th-century sea voyages and the fragility of the young Sydney colony itself. Rather than a straightforward record of place, it’s a highly subjective, romantic representation, instilled with a powerful sense of the sublime in nature.

Martens was particularly interested in depicting the effects of weather. In this work, he has included a shaft of sunlight for focus, something he acknowledged was a favourite effect of 17th-century French artist Claude Lorrain and English artist JMW Turner (Martens’ contemporary), two masters of landscape painting whom he admired.

People and places

HMS Beagle set out from the UK in 1831 for a round-the-world scientific trip to survey coastlines, which lasted five years. On board was a young Charles Darwin, who would later become famous for his theories of evolution based on observations from that voyage. Martens joined the crew in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1833 to replace the official artist who’d fallen ill, and he and Darwin became lifelong friends. He left the expedition in Chile in 1834 due to insufficient funding for the artist position. He travelled to Tahiti then on to Sydney, where he remained. In 1836, the Beagle arrived in Australia and Darwin visited Martens and commissioned various watercolours from him.

Related material

Marten produced four versions of this image.