MARTENS, Conrad (1801-1878)


MARTENS, Conrad (1801-1878)
artist
was born at London, in 1801. His father, J. C. H. Martens, was a German merchant at Hamburg, who settled in England and married an English woman. Little is known of Martens's education and early life, but it is evident that he must have received a good education, and the fact that he chose Copley Fielding, one of the best-known water-colour painters of his day, as his master, suggests that his family was in comfortable circumstances. After his father's death he was painting and living in Devonshire, and sometime later went to South America. In August 1832 the Beagle arrived at Monte Video with Charles Darwin on board, and Martens joined the ship as topographer. That he became friendly with Darwin is evident from a letter quoted in Lionel Lindsay's Conrad Martens, The Man and His Art, forwarding a sketch to Darwin nearly 30 years afterwards.
Martens was two years on the Beagle. Leaving her in September 1834, he stayed for some months at Valparaiso, and then went to Sydney calling at Tahiti and New Zealand on the way. He entered the heads on 17 April 1835. Sydney was then a town of about 20,000 inhabitants and, though some signs of culture were beginning to emerge, it was scarcely a likely place where a man might hope for success as an artist. Martens, however, was fortunate in finding some early patrons, among them being General Sir Edward Macarthur (q.v.), Sir Daniel Cooper (q.v.) and Alexander McLeay (q.v.). In 1837 he married Jane Brackenbury Carter, and was evidently making a living though a precarious one. Afterwards he began drawing lithographic views of Sydney which he coloured by hand and sold for one guinea each. In 1849, when Sydney was passing through a depression, he mentions in a letter that he has no pupils and has been able to sell few pictures. Some years before this he had built a cottage on a piece of land belonging to his wife, on the north side of the harbour. He had a roof over his head and congenial surroundings, and lived there for the remainder of his days. But as the years went by there was no improvement in his sales, it was a period of expansion, people were too busy to be much interested in the arts, and Martens was as lonely a figure in painting as Harpur (q.v.) was in poetry. In 1863 he was glad to accept the position of assistant parliamentary librarian and found the work congenial, though it left him little time for painting. He died on 21 August 1878, and was survived by his wife and two daughters, who subsequently died unmarried.
Martens was essentially a water-colour artist, his oils as a rule are comparatively heavy handed and dull. He was an excellent draughtsman as his many sketches in pencil testify, and to this merit he added good composition and quiet beauty of colour. Many years passed before a water-colourist of equal merit appeared in Australia. He is represented in the Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart, and Brisbane galleries, there is a fine collection at the Mitchell library, and there are also examples at the Commonwealth national library, Canberra. His portrait by Dr Maurice Felton is at the Mitchell library, and a self-portrait in oils was in 1920 in the possession of Miss Coombes of Fonthill.
Lionel Lindsay, Conrad Martens the Man and his Art; W. Moore, The Story of Australian Art; Charles Darwin's Diary; Sir Wm Dixson, Journal and Proceedings Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. V, p. 298.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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