VIEW OF SYDNEY COVE, 1838

Important Australian and International Fine Art
Melbourne
28 November 2018
30

CONRAD MARTENS

(1801 – 1878)
VIEW OF SYDNEY COVE, 1838

watercolour and scraping out on paper

43.0 x 63.0 cm

signed and dated lower right: C. Martens / Sydney 1838

Estimate: 
$200,000 – 300,000
Provenance

John Gilchrist (1803 – 1866), Sydney
Thence by descent
William Oswald Gilchrist (1843 – 1920), United Kingdom, the eldest son of the above
Clara Elizabeth Gilchrist (née Knox) (1851 – 1930), United Kingdom, wife of the above
Thence by descent
Sir Edward Ritchie Knox (1889 – 1973), Sydney
Thence by descent
Edward Geoffrey Knox (1924 – 1983), Canberra
Thence by descent
Private collection, Canberra

Catalogue text

This is a quintessential Sydney view painted by one of the best known colonial artists. The vantage point is from Milsons Point looking directly across the Harbour to Fort Macquarie, built during the term of Governor Macquarie as a defence, but never used, with Sydney Cove and warehouses and ships’ masts to the right. The Sydney Opera House is now on the site of Fort Macquarie. As well as a celebration of the magnificent harbour setting, the painting also documents the flourishing settlement.

In his preliminary sketch for this work (Mitchell Library PXC 294, f. 23) Martens gave a key to the main buildings, which include from left to right: the first St Mary’s Cathedral, Hyde Park Barracks, part of the Legislative Council Chambers (one of the former ‘Rum’ hospital buildings), Government Stables; and on the western side, the Sydney Barracks, and Government Warehouse (Commissariat Building) on the shore of Sydney Cove. Painted some two years after the sketch, Martens made some amendments in this finished work: the old windmill tower near present day Governor Phillip’s statue had been demolished, and the partly built new Government House, begun in 1837, is clearly visible above the fort. Unusually for Martens, he has placed an artist (himself?) with sketchbook and easel seated on a rock as a focal figure in the foreground near where the northern approaches to the Sydney Harbour Bridge now stand. A preliminary study for this figure is in one of his sketchbooks (Mitchell Library PXC 391, f. 39a).

Martens had been in Sydney since April 1835 and quickly established himself as the artist of choice for the colonial merchants, officials and landowners. This success is reflected in an increasingly confident handling of his materials and subjects. Smaller, earlier versions of the subject of this painting (Mitchell Library, Art Gallery of New South Wales and Newcastle Art Gallery) are all simpler, albeit competent watercolours. In this ultimate version, Martens has completely altered the scale, mood and complexity using rich indigo tones and contrasting highlights to achieve a dramatic stormy sky looming to the south of the city. This contrasts with the sunlit sandstone of the fort emphasising the focal point of the view in the middle distance. To the left of the fort is one of the local paddle steamers Experiment or Australian, identified by the smart black and white horizontal stripes on the tall funnel.

Apart from its intrinsic quality as one of Martens’ best works done at a time when his career was blossoming, this work has an impeccable provenance. As recorded in Martens’ account book in an entry which gives its title as ‘View of Sydney Cove’ dated 22 November 1838, it was acquired for fifteen guineas (Martens’ highest price at the time for a large work) by the Scottish merchant John Gilchrist (1803 – 1866) who had been based in Sydney since 1828. Like others involved in the local shipping trade, he lived at first at Millers Point. After his marriage he built Greenknowe at Darlinghurst (now Potts Point) in the mid-1840s and lived there with his family until returning to England in 1854.

His eldest son William Oswald Gilchrist (1843 – 1920) followed his father in the firm and married Clara Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Sir Edward Knox, founder of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company. This painting of Sydney Cove passed into the Knox family and has remained with their heirs until the present time.

ELIZABETH ELLIS OAM
Emeritus Curator, Mitchell Library