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Page from Conrad Martens’s sketchbooks (1833–35), from his time on board the HMS Beagle (courtesy Cambridge University Library)

Sailing aboard the HMS Beagle from 1833 to 1835, artist Conrad Martens kept sketchbooks of the landscapes, people, and animals the expedition encountered — historically important visuals of the voyage that so shaped a young Charles Darwin’s future work. For the first time, these sketchbooks at Cambridge University Library have been put online, so that anyone can virtually flip through the incredibly detailed drawings and watercolors.

Page from Conrad Martens’s sketchbooks (1833–35) (courtesy Cambridge University Library) (click to enlarge)

The announcement of their addition to the Cambridge Digital Library was made last month, joining other recent virtual Darwin projects like the Darwin Online Beagle Library, which launched last July and catalogues all the books available onboard the ship, and the Darwin Manuscripts Project, which was announced in November by the American Museum of Natural History in collaboration with Cambridge and is digitizing 30,000 documents. Darwin is quickly becoming one of the best-archived historical figures on the internet.

Yet the sketchbooks aren’t just about Darwin; Martens was an adventurous and inquisitive explorer in his own right. From impressions of exotic flora and portraits of Patagonian people in Tierra del Fuego to the idle entertainment of crew members aboard the ship, Martens had a quick hand. He saturated his drawings with details and made notes about color, texture, and geology, which he would later incorporate into paintings and lithographs. Amazingly, the sketchbooks are incredibly small. As Alison Pearn, associate director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, described in the announcement post, “[e]ach of these pages is only 14cm by 20cm.”

Martens left the HMS Beagle crew when the party was consolidated from two ships into one, but the intrepid artist continued on his own to many of the places Darwin would visit in the Pacific Islands. He later continued to journey around New Zealand and Australia, living in Sydney as a prolific landscape painter until his death in 1878. Below is an audio slide show created by Cambridge University Library in celebration of the digitized sketchbooks. It shows how, on a diminutive scale, in the rough conditions of a 19th-century sailing ship, Martens captured the adventures and trials of the HMS Beagle voyage.

Page from Conrad Martens’s sketchbooks (1833–35) (courtesy Cambridge University Library)

Page from Conrad Martens’s sketchbooks (1833–35) (courtesy Cambridge University Library)

Page from Conrad Martens’s sketchbooks (1833–35) (courtesy Cambridge University Library)

Page from Conrad Martens’s sketchbooks (1833–35) (courtesy Cambridge University Library)

Read more about the HMS Beagle sketchbooks on Cambridge University Library’s website.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...