This essay originally appeared in New Zealand Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2018).
Kororareka in the Bay of Islands was painted in Sydney, six years after Conrad Martens’ brief sojourn in the Bay of Islands, and is based on a pencil drawing in a sketchbook, Kororareka, Bay of Islands, 1834–36 (State Library of New South Wales). There are only minor differences between the on-the-spot sketch and the painting, chiefly the addition of the groupof Māori standing on the left. This view from behind Kororāreka (present-day Russell) looks across the town towards the bay, with the buildings of the pā and a thin line of European houses along the shoreline. One of three known New Zealand oils by Martens, this painting was first recorded as being in a private collection in Sydney in 1919, and was reproduced in 1920 in Lionel Lindsay’s book, Conrad Martens: The man and his art.
London-born Martens was a pupil of the popular artist Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding. In 1833 he sailed for South America, where he seized the opportunity to join HMS Beagle as its artist. On leaving the Beagle in Valparaiso late the following year, he set out for Sydney, sailing via Tahiti, the Cook Islands and the Bay of Islands, where he spent five days in April 1835. After his delightful few weeks in Tahiti, he found Kororāreka a disappointment, and wrote in his journal of the ‘grey, dull and sombre tone’ of the scanty trees and land. His negative impressions of New Zealand are reflected in the dark cloud effects and muted colours of this painting, and in the absence of bush other than the rotted tree trunk lying in the foreground.
He settled in Sydney, building a strong reputation as an artist, and exhibiting and selling watercolours and oils of Australian, South American and Pacific subjects. Prints of his work were widely published, including etchings of his South American landscapes as illustrations to the account of the voyages of the Beagle. On his death in Sydney in 1878, he was described as ‘the acknowledged father of colonial art’, and his reputation, unlike that of many colonial artists, has survived intact to the present.