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Conrad Martens' Sketchbooks I and III

Conrad Martens was born in London in 1801, the son of J. C. H. Martens, who had settled in England after serving as the Austrian consul. In the early 1820s, Conrad Martens studied landscape painting under watercolourist Copley Fielding (1789--1855), and for the next ten years undertook a number of sketching tours, mainly in Kent and Devon; two Devon scenes were exhibited in 1833 at the Royal Society of British Artists.

In 1833 he sailed on the Hyacinth from Plymouth via Gibraltar, Funchal, Tenerife and Salvador to Rio de Janeiro, where he made numerous pencil sketches. The Hyacinth was bound for India, but while in Rio, Martens learned of a vacany on the British South American Expedition ship Beagle, and sailed on the Indus to Montevideo in July 1833 to join the crew in place of the artist Augustus Earle, who had become too unwell to continue.

The Beagle, accompanied by the rescue ship Adventure, finally left Montevideo on 6 December 1833, reaching Port Desire on the Patagonian coast by Christmas. In the first half of 1834 the Beagle visited Port St Julian, Port Famine, Tierra del Fuego, and Port Louis on East Falkland Island. In Tierra del Fuego, Martens drew Jemmy Button, a young Fuegian educated in England by FitzRoy, and of interest to the Beagle naturalist, Charles Darwin, in the context of differences between `primitive' and `civilised' human peoples.

After a stormy passage through the Straits of Magellan, the Beagle visited the island of Chiloé and reached Valparaiso in Chile on 31 July 1834. The British Admiralty thereafter refused to underwrite the expenses of the rescue ship, which FitzRoy consequently sold, one upshot being that there was no longer room on the expedition for Martens. He stayed with a German named Berger in Chile, and undertook a painting tour with J. M. Rugendas, sailing on the Peruvian in December 1834 to Tahiti and Moorea, where he stayed until 4 March 1835.

Martens sailed from Tahiti for New Zealand on the Black Warrior, and continued to Sydney in Australia, arriving there on 17 April 1835, armed with a letter of introduction from FitzRoy to Captain Philip Parker King, former commander of the British South American Survey. King and his cousins became friends and patrons to Martens, who sketched in the Sydney, Blue Mountains and Illawarra regions, and began to receive commissions.

1836 was financially the most successful year of Martens' life as an artist. The Beagle arrived in Australia that year, and Darwin visited Martens, commissioning watercolours of Jemmy Button waving farewell to the Beagle, and of an excursion up the Santa Cruz River. FitzRoy commissioned a view of Moorea, and was presented with a view of Tahiti. Other large commissions were also received, and the following year some of Martens' Australian watercolours were exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists in London.

Martens married Jane Carter on 9 March 1837, and had two daughters, Rebecca (1838--1870) and Elizabeth (1839--1909). A son, William, was born in 1844 but died aged only six weeks. In 1839 drought in Australia was followed by an economic recession lasting until the late 1850s. Commissions became scarce and the Martens family experienced an extended period of financial difficulty. Martens made some money by selling prints from a lithograph of `Sydney from the north shore', and by taking pupils. He exhibited watercolours at the inauguration of the Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Australia in 1847, and in its subsequent exhibitions.

A period of instruction in oil painting from Marshall Claxton in 1850 lightened Martens' formerly `muddy' palette and improved his technique. He toured parts of eastern Australia in the early 1850s in the hope of finding new patrons, visiting Philip Gidley King in 1852 and receiving news of Darwin. He exhibited at the Victorian Fine Arts Society in Melbourne in 1853, and at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1855. Eventual improvement in the Australian economy in the later 1850s led to an increase in significant commissions.

In 1862 Martens received a message from Darwin, and replied, congratulating him on the success of the Origin of species. He sent Darwin a watercolour of Brisbane River on the occasion of a visit to Darwin in October 1862 by Wickham, former Government Resident in Brisbane, and other former Beagle shipmates. Paintings by Martens were exhibited at the International Exhibition in London.

In 1863 Martens became Assistant Librarian in the Australian Parliamentary Library, securing his financial position, but severely curtailing the time he could spend on artistic work. He exhibited at the Paris International Exhibition in 1867. He received his first public commission in 1872, from the Victorian Gallery (later National Gallery of Victoria) for a watercolour of Apsley Falls near Waterloo, and a second similar commission in 1875 from the New South Wales Academy of Arts (later Art Gallery of New South Wales), of whose Council he became a member in 1877.

From the later 1860s Martens suffered from angina, and he died from a heart attack on 21 August 1878.

The sketchbooks

During Conrad Martens' voyages, including particularly his time on the Beagle, he compiled four sketchbooks. In later life Martens asked his daughter Rebecca to copy what he thought were the most interesting drawings into other sketchbooks, which he kept. The four originals were given to his former favourite pupil, Mrs Macarthur Onslow, and remained for many years in the possession of her descendants at Camden Park, near Sydney; two of them later passed into the possession of Armando Braun Menendez. Through his cooperation and the generosity of Lady Nora Barlow, a granddaughter of Charles Darwin, these two sketchbooks were deposited in Cambridge University Library in 1977.

These two sketchbooks are numbered "I" and "III" on their covers. The first sketchbook in terms of chronological order is, in fact, Sketchbook III. This contains images sketched by Martens during his passage from England to South America, prior to his association with the Beagle, a period which includes all but one of his sketches of Montevideo. Although in Montevideo from August 1833, it was not until November that Martens actually moved in on board the Beagle. The first sketch made while Martens' was a member of the Beagle crew is MS.Add.7983: 21v--22, just before their departure from Montevideo. Sketchbook III measures 140mm high by 220mm wide. On the original cover, the roman number III appears. On the bottom, at the lower end, it is inscribed: `South America'. The Sketchbook has thirty-one leaves. Of the sixty-two pages, twenty are illustrated in pencil, a double page in sepia, and the remaining twelve illustrated pages are watercolours. Most of the sketches are dated, and the book remained in use until early February 1834.

Sketchbook I measures 150mm high by 240mm wide. It has sixty-four leaves. Martens makes over sixty pencil sketches, using for the most part the right hand page. The sketches begin in April 1834, with the exception of the very first image, which dates from late January 1834. It remained in use after Martens' association with the Beagle had come to an end, during his voyage from South America via a number of Pacific Ocean islands to New Zealand and Australia. The last sketch made while Martens was part of the Beagle crew is MS.Add.7984: 38, one of a set made after their arrival in Valparaiso in August 1834.

The sketches were thus made during Martens' encounters with a number of different topographies, climate zones, and human communities. As a result, their content is, not surprisingly, wide-ranging. Topography is one of the most important recurring subject matters, especially because of its central role in the purposes of the Beagle expedition; Martens submitted many of his sketches to the Beagle's captain, Robert FitzRoy, for approval, especially of the depictions of topography, and FitzRoy initialled these after his scrutiny of them. But there are other principal subject matters, including buildings, plants, ships, and human figures, and to a lesser but still significant extent, animals, human social and economic activities, and water (river and seascapes). These main topics form the basis of the classified index points accompanying the descriptions of the images. Cloud types have also been included in this set of topics; FitzRoy was a meteorologist as well as a navigator, and had an apparent influence on the clarity of Martens' depiction of clouds. With some 100 images relating to so many thousands of kilometers travelled, there is little repetition, though some vistas partly overlap, especially those made during the expedition into the Santa Cruz river valley, and those made in and around Montevideo; indeed, apart from glimpses of the Beagle and her support ship the Adventure, one of the few images to reappear a number of times is that of Montevideo Cathedral.


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