Explorer John Oxley first described the Apsley Falls, New South Wales, in September 1818, writing in his journal that he was ‘lost in astonishment at the sight of this wonderful natural sublimity’ and that ‘it is impossible to form a correct idea of the wild magnificence of the scenery without the pencil of a Salvator. Such a painter would here find an ample field for the exercise of his genius’.
By the time Conrad Martens visited the falls in 1852, they were a renowned sight. Martens produced three different paintings of falls on the Apsley during the following two decades. A detailed pencil study, The Apsley at Waterloo, on which the Melbourne view was based, shows that the dramatic rock formations are the real focus of the work. Martens's interest in geology was of long standing. A South American sketchbook by him exists containing views of mountains, valleys and coastal profiles taken in 1834 while he was on board the survey ship the Beagle, and it is recorded that he had borrowed Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology from Charles Darwin before the voyage began. Martens's spectacular view with its mist-shrouded heights, unfathomable depths and the exaggerated, vertical thrust of its jagged rock strata exemplifies the picturesque in landscape painting. Martens had arrived in Sydney in 1836 and swiftly established himself as the colony’s most significant artist. This watercolour was especially commissioned for the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection in 1873 by Eliezer Levi Montefiore a businessman and philanthropist who, in the following year, commissioned a variant of this picture on behalf of the trustees of the New South Wales Academy of Art (now the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney).
Text © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia