conrad martens elizabeth bay house

Elizabeth Bay by Conrad Martens c1838

conrad martens elizabeth bay house sketch

A pencil study for the painting above.

Elizabeth Bay House

The house today with only a small piece land surrounding it.

skylight obove stairs elzabeth bay house

Stair salon, elzabeth bay house

Two views of the salon showing the staircase and the dome above it.

When I was a slip of a lad I became enamoured with a watercolour by famous Australian painter, Conrad Martens. The picture, Elizabeth Bay, features Elizabeth Bay House in its own harbour side estate. Elizabeth Bay is now an inner city suburb minutes from the heart of one of the world’s most beautiful cities. In the early 1800’s it was a different story.

Firstly let’s thank the lovely people at the art Gallery of New South Wales. Unbelievably anyone who wants to view part of the collection can make an appointment in the study room. If the item is in the offsite facility the viewing takes place in a hall. The storage facility looks like the type of high tech all-white ultra-modern building you’d expect to see in a high budget American thriller. There are white walls and indirect lighting and staff so discreet as to be invisible. We parked the Tiguan beside the subtle signage and entered via an equally discreet doorway. If it wasn’t for the intercom unit and finger print scanner you would miss it altogether. Can you believe we were entering an art facility with a fingerprint scanner on the door? This is the only hint as to the treasures contained therein. Once signed in and issued with a visitors pass we waited with baited breathe. As if by magic, curator Emma Smithappeared to usher us deep into the bosom of the collection.

We chatted like giddy school girls scarcely able to contain our enthusiasm, with the anticipation building with each turn. Suddenly, there was the picture I had only ever seen on books. The viewing hall has a massive wall fronted with steel mesh. Our picture was waiting patiently, hanging right at eye level. It probably hadn’t been viewed in years apart from the move to the new building. The gold frame was almost as magnificent as the painting itself and looked as shiny as a new penny. I was overjoyed. It was a little bigger than I had imagined. There was no disapproving security guard scowling because you’ve lingered to long in the one spot. The detail was amazing. The flora, the House, and the harbour were painted with such care and skill. The whole suburb had just a single dwelling, albeit a magnificent one. Just look at the view over the verandah from the first floor of  Elizabeth House in 2012.

conrad martens entrance to elizabeth bay house

This Martens painting looks out across Sydney Harbour in the direction of The Heads (the entrance to Sydney Harbour). In the distance is  the spot where Martens would have sat looking back towards “Elizabeth Bay” (seen in the foreground) in 1838.

view from Elizabeth Bay House

A photo of the very same scene taken 175 years later from the first floor of Elizabeth Bay House.

It is looking out to where Martens would have sat when he painted “Elizabeth Bay” over a hundred and seventy years ago. When Conrad’s brush touched the paper the colony of New South Wales was a mere 50 years old. Doesn’t that just put things into perspective?

We talked about the artist, the Australian art scene, the art gallery and the fact that such pictures could be viewed with so little fuss. Their rationale is: the collection belongs to us so we are entitled to make use of it for free, after all art should be enjoyed by all. Its part of our history and in this case forms part of a pictorial record of the development of our nation. It shows how we have grown from a few convicts in tents at Sydney Cove (only a few hundred metres from where the main gallery now sits) to a bustling, world class city in a prosperous unique country.

In a flash it was over. We had handed back our passes and were once again sitting in the Tiguan, this week’s GayCarBoys test car.

You simply can’t pay for that kind of experience. To book your own personal experience, click on the links to the Art Gallery of NSW.


from the Gallery website

Elizabeth Bay House faced an uncertain future in the 1930s. A subdivision in 1927 had led to the demolition of the kitchen wing and left the house stranded on a traffic island, tightly hemmed in all on all sides by Onslow Avenue. It became an artists’ squat until, in July 1935, the property was leased as a venue for fashionable receptions and the artists were obliged to leave. The Elizabeth Bay House photographs in this album seem to have been taken soon after the departure of the squatters. The photos are notable for the complete absence of people and furniture.

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