Tahlee, Port Stephens, NSW

Born London, England 1801, arrived Australia 1835, died Sydney 1878

Conrad Martens was Australia’s first professional artist. At the age of sixteen he began his art study in London, ending a banking tradition in his family that stretched back to the fifteenth century.

Martens left England onboard the Hyacinth headed towards India, but changed ships to work as an artist on the HMS Beagle. He met and befriended Captain FitzRoy and the naturalist, Charles Darwin. Their knowledge of geology, weather patterns, topography and science had a great impact on Martens’ practice, which relinquished a romantic sensibility for scientific detail and observation.

Arriving in Sydney in 1835, Martens settled at Cumberland Street, The Rocks. Although he was a trained watercolourist, the pressure to make a living led him to oil painting for the first time in 1838.

His images of Sydney and surrounding New South Wales between 1835 and the early 1940s show a concern with light, space and clarity of tone. Topographically accurate, his paintings retained a pictureseque quality. Tahlee, Port Stephens, NSW (1841) is typical of Martens’ paintings at this time. The boat in the foreground provides a sense of scale while also emphasising the idyllic co-existence of colonial man and the tamed Australian nature.

Conrad Martens is represented at the National Gallery of Australia and most state and regional galleries. His work was included in The Great Australian Art Exhibition 1788–1988, Art Gallery of South Australia and touring all state galleries (1988–89), and The Face of Australia (1988), Ballarat Fine Art Gallery and touring nationally.