Conrad Martens was born in London, the son of an Austrian diplomat. He studied landscape painting under the watercolourist Copley Fielding (1789–1855), who also briefly taught Ruskin. In 1833 he was on board the Hyacinth, headed for India, but en route in Rio de Janeiro, learned that Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, was looking for a replacement after Augustus Earle, the Beagle’s original artist, had become seriously ill.
Martens sailed on the Indus to Monte Video where he joined the Beagle crew in July 1833; he stayed with them until July 1834, when FitzRoy sold the Beagle's companion ship, the Adventure. In December 1834 Martens headed for Tahiti and Moorea, then New Zealand, and continued to Australia, arriving there in April 1835. In Sydney he was befriended by Philip Parker King, former commander of the British South American Survey, to whom FitzRoy had given him a letter of introduction. When the Beagle arrived in Australia in 1836, Darwin and FitzRoy visited Martens and both commissioned paintings.
In 1837 some of Martens’s Australian watercolours were exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists in London, but he was badly hit by a recession in Australia that lasted through the 1840s and 50s. He turned to oil painting and exhibited at the Victorian Fine Arts Society in Melbourne in 1853, the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1855, and at the International Exhibition in London in 1862, the year in which he also sent Darwin a watercolour of Brisbane River. Martens stayed in Australia, becoming Assistant Librarian in the Australian Parliamentary Library. He continued painting and had a number of public commissions before dying from a heart attack on 21 August 1878.
Conrad Martens' sketchbooks
Martens compiled four sketchbooks during his travels. He later gave these to his favourite pupil, Mrs Macarthur Onslow, and they remained for many years in the possession of her descendants at Camden Park, near Sydney; two of them later passed to a Brazilian, Armando Braun Menendez. Through his cooperation and the generosity of Lady Nora Barlow, a granddaughter of Charles Darwin, these two sketchbooks, numbered ‘I’ and ‘III’ on their covers, were deposited in Cambridge University Library in 1977.
FitzRoy wrote in his Narrative of the voyage: ‘Knowing well that no one actively engaged in the surveying duties on which [we] were going to be employed, would have time – even if he had the ability – to make much use of the pencil, I engaged an artist ... to go out in a private capacity; though not without the sanction of the Admiralty, who authorized him to be victualled.’ Admiralty orders were that drawings used to complement surveys should be ‘plain, distinct roughs’ rather than highly finished plans, ‘where accuracy is often sacrificed to beauty’. Martens’s sketches suggest that both he and FitzRoy interpreted this brief more widely, and that he was encouraged to illustrate more extensively the landscape and the people encountered on the voyage.
Chronologically, the first sketchbook is 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 Monte Video. Although he arrived in Monte Video in August 1833, it was not until November that Martens actually moved onboard the Beagle. The first sketch Martens made as a member of the Beagle crew is MS.Add.7983: 21v–22, just before their departure from Monte Video.
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 made 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’s 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.