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Portrait of a painter: a photograph of Conrad Martens by Freeman Brothers Studio, 1856


The generous provision of funds by the Felton Bequest recently enabled the National Gallery of Victoria successfully to bid at auction1Lot 21, Sotheby’s, Melbourne, 17 April 1989. The photograph was originally part of the Kenneth R. Stewart collection. It is reproduced in the following publications: Lionel Lindsay, Conrad Martens: The Man and His Art, Angus & Robertson, Melbourne, 1968, frontispiece (rev. edn); Douglas Dundas, The Art of Conrad Martens, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1979, frontispiece. for a rare ambrotype portrait of the Australian painter Conrad Martens. Taken on 16 July 1856 by the noted Sydney studio photographers William and James Freeman, the work is of considerable historical importance both as the earliest known photograph of Martens2The Mitchell Library holds several other photographs of Martens in their small-picture file, including an albumen silver photograph (1860s) from which several enlargements have been made subsequently with retouching and colouring. In addition their collection contains three oil portraits of the artist, all of which probably predate the National Gallery of Victoria’s photograph. and an indicator of the artist’s interest in this new medium. More importantly it is a haunting and powerful study which ranks among Australia’s finest photographic portraits of the mid-nineteenth century. 

Martens’s portrait was taken by one of Sydney’s leading photographic studios established in George Street by the brothers William (1809–95) and James (1814–90) Freeman in 1854. Both had migrated from England – James having purchased a licence to produce daguerreotypes from the patent holder, Richard Beard, before his departure. They were soon acclaimed as Australia’s foremost exponents of this process, the Sydney Morning Herald declaring in 1855 that ‘the Messrs Freeman were, and continue to be, by far the most perfect manipulators [of daguerreotypes]’.3Sydney Morning Herald, 20 September 1855, quoted in Alan Davies & Peter Stanbury, The Mechanical Eye in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, p. 24. 

James Freeman, in particular, appears to have prided himself on his ability to keep abreast of new developments in photography and in October 1854 was the first person to produce ambrotypes or collodiotypes, as they were also known, in Australia. It was initially not a popular process, the public preferring the minute detail and mirror-like surface characteristic of the daguerreotype to the softer finish of the so-called ‘glass pictures’. Eventually, however, the fashion for ambrotypes grew, and by the late 1850s they were the main process used for photographic portraiture. 

It is possible that the Freemans asked Martens to sit for them in an effort to promote the advantages of the ambrotype. Certainly James Freeman advocated the taking of photographs of well-known identities. In a lecture he gave to the Philosophical Society of New South Wales on 8 December 1858 he said: 

We love to gaze upon the lineaments of those who have rendered themselves famous in history. How many disputes have arisen as to the correctness of celebrated portraits … Photography settles it all. Galleries of Portraits are now being published which will put the personal appearance of the leaders of our age beyond the reach of controversy.4James Freeman, ‘On the progress of photography and its application to the arts and sciences’, The Sydney Magazine of Science and Art, vol. 2, 1859, p. 138. 

Whatever the case it is apparent that the Freeman Brothers were pleased by the success of their photograph of Martens as they took considerable care to precisely title, sign and date it on the reverse of the backing board – an unusual attention to detail which suggests they may have intended to display the work in one of the local or international exhibitions to which they regularly contributed.5For instance on the occasion of his lecture Freeman, along with other members of the society, displayed a group of his photographs, among which was ‘A large collection of Portraits in different styles … ’; Freeman, The Sydney Magazine of Science and Art, p. 131. 

The photograph itself is almost austere in its composition, with none of the painted backdrops or props which characterise later commercial portraiture. Martens is posed simply, seated on a chair with arms crossed and head slightly tilted. He gazes directly into the camera with no attempt to smile or soften his appearance, revealing both an apparently forceful personality and a certain weariness – the latter indicative of the uncertain financial situation in which he frequently found himself.

At the time that Martens’s portrait was taken the artist was fifty-five years old and had maintained a reputation as New South Wales’s leading watercolourist for twenty years. However such popularity did not always ensure financial security – he survived the economic depression in Sydney in the early 1840s, for instance, largely through teaching and sales of lithographs. 

In 1851 Martens’s fortunes improved after he became the first European artist to record the Moreton Bay and Darling Downs region in Queensland. The sales of work that resulted from this trip decreased around 1856 and he again faced the prospect of supplementing his income by other means. The considerable strain of this position encouraged Martens in 1863 to seek and accept the position of assistant parliamentary librarian, from which he earned a steady, if relatively modest, income.6Tim Bonyhady, Images in Opposition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985. For a discussion of Martens’s financial situation see pp. 10–11. 

The Freeman Brothers’ portrait effectively captures something of the personal effect that such fluctuating fortunes had on Martens. Besides being a particularly striking portrait it also raises, as a side issue, the question of Martens’s own interest and involvement in photography. 

As a European artist working in a colony far removed from the artistic centres of London and Paris, Martens sought to combat his isolation through subscription to overseas publications. It was probably through reference to one such journal that he became aware of the exciting discoveries that were taking place in the field of photography. Around 1840, a year before the first known photographs were taken in Australia, he entered a recipe for photogenic drawing in his Commonplace Book.7Conrad Martens, Notes on Painting: A Commonplace Book, 1835–1856, Mitchell Library, MS 142, pp. 16–19. Quoted in Gael Newton, Shades of Light, The Australian National Gallery, Canberra, & Collins, Sydney, 1988, p. 172. It is believed that part of the formula recorded refers to an invention by the botanist Dr Golding Bird, a minor figure in British photographic history. 

While there is no evidence to suggest that Martens produced any photogenic drawings, his interest in photography continued throughout the 1840s and 1850s. In 1856, for instance, in a ‘Lecture upon landscape painting’ delivered at the Australian Library on 21 July8Conrad Martens, ‘A lecture upon landscape painting’, delivered to a sketching club at the Australian Library, Sydney, 21 July 1856; reproduced in Bernard Smith (ed.), Documents on Art and Taste in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1975, pp. 97–111. A further reference by Martens to photography exists in a letter written by him to his brother on 22 June 1854 and contained in his Letterbook (Mitchell Library, MS Q313, p. 11, transcription by unknown hand), in which he states: ‘I have lately received a letter from Cousin Fred, dated from Lausanne and containing his own portrait in photography. The likeness however I cannot recognize and it is moreover indifferently done … by him I heard of the death of his brother Louis and of the legacy in shape of a family of young children left to Fred’s care. It seems however that he is doing well for himself with his photographic machine’. – some five days after sitting for his portrait at the Freeman Brothers – he advocated the use of daguerreotypes as a valuable study aid for artists. 

In this lecture Martens stated the necessity for the artist to produce a detailed ‘study’ of the landscape. However he did not consider such a study to be in any sense a work of art, for, unlike the finished drawing or painting, ‘it tells no story, it appeals not to the feelings’. To assist in the exact transcription of the natural world Martens suggested that ‘the daguerreotype apparatus will often be found exceedingly useful’. He then stressed the supposedly mechanical and undiscriminating nature of photography with the remark that the camera only records ‘parts [of the landscape] such as trees, rocks, foliage, water, clouds and sky at different times of the day, in short whatever objects enter the composition of a picture’.9Smith, Documents, p. 100. No daguerreotypes taken or purchased by Martens have been discovered. Examples of his studies of ‘parts of nature’ are to be found, for instance, in his Album of Cloud Studies, Mountain, Bush and Harbour Scenes in the Mitchell Library, ZDLPX28, folio 10. 

Martens’s views on the purely utilitarian use of photography were shared by many in the mid-nineteenth century. However he may have been particularly influenced in his opinions by John Ruskin, the British critic whose book Modern Painters (volume I) Martens is known to have read.10Bonyhady, Images, pp. 92–3. In the 1840s Ruskin both praised the new medium of photography and became one of its earliest practitioners, producing many daguerreotypes which he used as the basis for later watercolours.11For Ruskin’s views on photography and illustrations of his own daguerreotypes see R. N. Watson, ‘Art, photography and John Ruskin’, British journal of Photography, 10 March 1944, pp. 82–3; 24 March 1944, pp. 100–1; 7 April 1944, pp. 118–19; Michael Bartram, The Pre-Raphaelite Camera, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1985. However as the debate regarding photography as art gained momentum Ruskin began to change his opinion, eventually dismissing the medium entirely. 

At the time that Martens wrote his lecture Ruskin was still somewhat in favour of the use of photography as a study aid, with certain provisos. In his book Stones of Venice (1851) he stated, for instance: ‘For as a photograph is not a work of art, though it requires certain delicate manipulations of paper and acid, and subtle calculations of time … so neither would a drawing like a photograph, made directly from nature, be a work of art although it would imply many delicate manipulations of pencil’. For Ruskin what transformed a study into art was the moment that the ‘inner part of a man … stands forth with its solemn “Behold it is I”’.12Ε. T. Cook & Alexander Wedderburn (eds), The Works of John Ruskin, George Allen, London, 1903–12, vol. 11, pp. 201–3. 

Martens too drew very clear distinctions between the ‘imitation’ of nature – which the daguerreotype could perform so well – and the creation of a work of art. Stressing the necessity for the artist to capture nature’s ‘light and shade … or chiaro scuro [sic]’, he stated that ‘the art of landscape painting [lies] not in that of imitating individual objects, but the art of imitating an effect which nature has produced’.13Smith, Documents, p. 101. 

Certainly Martens’s own art reflects his concern with capturing such ‘effects’ and ostensibly reveals no evidence of his use of photography. However, as Tim Bonyhady has noted, an examination of Martens’s correspondence shows that the painter frequently: ‘discussed the relationship between providing accurate records of the landscape and attempting works of art … [He] expressed a strong commitment to giving [his] work a documentary aspect and recognising that a balance had to be drawn between science and art’.14Bonyhady, Images, p. 93. There is little doubt, given Martens’s lecture, that this desire for scientific fidelity was on occasion satisfied by photography. 

The nineteenth-century belief in the supposed objectivity and impartiality of photography was a strong one and partially accounts for the medium’s popularity in that age of positivism. Certainly for many people its unique ability to permanently capture the image of a person at a particular moment in time gave portraits taken by the camera a distinctive edge over painted representations. Perhaps it was such considerations that encouraged Martens to sit for the Freeman Brothers’ photograph. It was fortunate for us that he reached that decision and that this fragile work on glass has survived the intervening 133 years to provide us with a powerful and revealing portrait of this major Australian painter. 

Isobel Crombie, Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1989).

Notes 

1          Lot 21, Sotheby’s, Melbourne, 17 April 1989. The photograph was originally part of the Kenneth R. Stewart collection. It is reproduced in the following publications: Lionel Lindsay, Conrad Martens: The Man and His Art, Angus & Robertson, Melbourne, 1968, frontispiece (rev. edn); Douglas Dundas, The Art of Conrad Martens, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1979, frontispiece. 

2          The Mitchell Library holds several other photographs of Martens in their small-picture file, including an albumen silver photograph (1860s) from which several enlargements have been made subsequently with retouching and colouring. In addition their collection contains three oil portraits of the artist, all of which probably predate the National Gallery of Victoria’s photograph. 

3          Sydney Morning Herald, 20 September 1855, quoted in Alan Davies & Peter Stanbury, The Mechanical Eye in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, p. 24. 

4          James Freeman, ‘On the progress of photography and its application to the arts and sciences’, The Sydney Magazine of Science and Art, vol. 2, 1859, p. 138. 

5          For instance on the occasion of his lecture Freeman, along with other members of the society, displayed a group of his photographs, among which was ‘A large collection of Portraits in different styles … ’; Freeman, The Sydney Magazine of Science and Art, p. 131. 

6          Tim Bonyhady, Images in Opposition, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985. For a discussion of Martens’s financial situation see pp. 10–11. 

7          Conrad Martens, Notes on Painting: A Commonplace Book, 1835–1856, Mitchell Library, MS 142, pp. 16–19. Quoted in Gael Newton, Shades of Light, The Australian National Gallery, Canberra, & Collins, Sydney, 1988, p. 172. 

8          Conrad Martens, ‘A lecture upon landscape painting’, delivered to a sketching club at the Australian Library, Sydney, 21 July 1856; reproduced in Bernard Smith (ed.), Documents on Art and Taste in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1975, pp. 97–111. A further reference by Martens to photography exists in a letter written by him to his brother on 22 June 1854 and contained in his Letterbook (Mitchell Library, MS Q313, p. 11, transcription by unknown hand), in which he states: ‘I have lately received a letter from Cousin Fred, dated from Lausanne and containing his own portrait in photography. The likeness however I cannot recognize and it is moreover indifferently done … by him I heard of the death of his brother Louis and of the legacy in shape of a family of young children left to Fred’s care. It seems however that he is doing well for himself with his photographic machine’. 

9          Smith, Documents, p. 100. No daguerreotypes taken or purchased by Martens have been discovered. Examples of his studies of ‘parts of nature’ are to be found, for instance, in his Album of Cloud Studies, Mountain, Bush and Harbour Scenes in the Mitchell Library, ZDLPX28, folio 10. 

10        Bonyhady, Images, pp. 92–3. 

11        For Ruskin’s views on photography and illustrations of his own daguerreotypes see R. N. Watson, ‘Art, photography and John Ruskin’, British journal of Photography, 10 March 1944, pp. 82–3; 24 March 1944, pp. 100–1; 7 April 1944, pp. 118–19; Michael Bartram, The Pre-Raphaelite Camera, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1985. 

12        Ε. T. Cook & Alexander Wedderburn (eds), The Works of John Ruskin, George Allen, London, 1903–12, vol. 11, pp. 201–3. 

13        Smith, Documents, p. 101. 

14        Bonyhady, Images, p. 93.