Important Australian + International Fine Art
6 May 2015


(1801 - 1878)

watercolour heightened with gouache and gum arabic on paper

45.0 x 65.0 cm

signed and dated lower right: C Martens / 1856

$100,000 - 140,000
Sold for $144,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 39 - 6 May 2015, Melbourne

Possibly William Brown Esq., Sydney, 12 February 1856 (recorded in Martens' Account book as 'View from above Vaucluse')
Walker's Galleries, London
Miss Barbara Knox, London (purchased from the above in 1951)
Thence by descent to her nephew
Mr M.E.K. Adams, Sydney (1967)
Thence by descent
Private collection, Sydney

Catalogue text

In the mid-1850s Martens reached the peak of his artistic achievements and was at the height of his technical powers. Influenced by the late atmospheric works of J.M.W. Turner, he built upon earlier studies of meteorological and cloud effects from his time on HMS Beagle with Charles Darwin and Captain Robert FitzRoy, and his own considerable expertise as an artist. The results were a series of superbly rendered, large-scale, dark-toned watercolours of dramatic storm scenes from high vantage points around Sydney Harbour depicting expansive vistas where the sky is as much the subject of the works as the harbour and foregrounds.

Storm over North Head, 1856 is a particularly fine example of this oeuvre in Martens' artistic production with its wide sweep over Sydney Harbour from the heights of Vaucluse across to Manly Cove in the distance, and to the right North and South Heads and the semi-circle of Watsons Bay, with ships taking shelter from the storm. In a series of brilliant theatrical touches, Martens has illuminated the road to South Head past the Macquarie Lighthouse as a counterpoint on the far right which in turn offsets the main central focal point of sunlight on the water. Moving to the foreground, the sun's rays catch the sandstone rock and tree trunk angled like punctuation points as an immediate visual focus. This is further emphasised in the bravura compositional effects of parallel diagonals formed by the line of looming storm clouds moving through the centre of the image and echoed by the tree highlighted in the left foreground.

This pinnacle of Martens' career lasted only few years. While he maintained his output and sales of paintings to the end of his life, by the 1860s his health was declining and he had to take a job as Assistant Parliamentary Librarian to supplement his income, leaving less time and ability for painting. His storm pictures of the 1850s therefore represent a triumphant late blossoming of his artistic powers never attained again. Storm over North Head is particularly impressive because of its fine original condition. It retains its original intense colouration and impeccably applied layers of washes and highlights which enhance the complexity and subtlety of the composition and consummate handling of the watercolours. In this work we can appreciate just how accomplished an artist Martens was at the height of his artistic career.

This is almost certainly the painting listed in Conrad Martens' Account Book (Dixson Library, State Library of NSW) on 12 February 1856 as View from above Vaucluse; purchaser 'William Brown Esq. for £21'. Brown ran a Sydney trading company, William Brown & Co., wine merchants. For some years he and his family lived at 'Cheverells', Darlinghurst (now Kings Cross) until their departure for England in 1862. During World War II 'Cheverells' became the American Red Cross Officers' Leave Club; its site is now the Gazebo Apartments.

Since 1951, when it was acquired by Miss Barbara Knox, the painting has been held in the possession of the Knox family and descendants. It was displayed in their home, 'Rona' in Bellevue Hill, Sydney, which was built in 1883 by Edward William Knox, until 1967 when the work was bequeathed to her nephew, Mr M.E.K. Adams and thence by descent to the current owners.