In late 1833, with the HMS Beagle anchored in Montevideo and Charles Darwin hunting fossils ashore, a British landscape painter named Conrad Martens joined the crew. He’s a “stone-pounding artist who exclaims in his sleep ‘think of me standing upon a pinnacle of the Andes,’” Capt. Robert FitzRoy wrote in a letter to Darwin. “I’m sure you will like him.” About halfway into a nearly five-year journey that would help him set the foundation for the theory of evolution, Darwin must have welcomed the new shipmate.
With his 6- by 9-inch sketchbooks, pencils and watercolors, Martens, 32, detailed the dramatic vistas, and occasionally the inhabitants, in ways that words never could. “It’s a remarkable view of the world. There’s a freshness, absolutely. You just feel like you are there,” says Alison Pearn, associate director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, which worked with the Cambridge University Digital Library to put Martens’ images online (as seen here and here.) Darwin would have agreed. Martens left the voyage after just a year, when costs forced FitzRoy to downsize. But the three later met up in Sydney, where Darwin purchased some of Martens’ paintings. One of them still hangs at his former estate, Down House.