Conrad Martens arrived in Sydney in 1835. For the next four decades he frequently painted the Harbour the beauty of which had so excited him on his arrival. While he occasionally went in search of more distant picturesque landscape it was the Harbour, and the effects of weather and light, which provided the subject for his most important works.
During those forty years Martens experienced the discovery of gold in 1851, the subsequent goldrushes and the population explosion which turned a small convict settlement into a booming colony. He frequently painted the changing townscape and was fascinated with the traffic of ships on the harbour. Many prosperous citizens commissioned paintings of their homes.
This painting, painted when Martens was sixty-four, probably depicts Spencer House at The Rocks. The house, large and single storied, with a verandah across the front fagade, is bound within a walled garden. Other buildings can be seen behind the house closer to the top of the hill.
At the waters' edge a few small buildings, probably stores, are in dense shadow and to the left there is a larger warehouse. The masts of docked and anchored ships are visible reminding us of the trade in wool and wheat as well as the great rush of immigrants arriving in Australia throughout the late nineteenth century. A small steam ship indicates that the world of sailing ships will soon be at an end. A yacht in full sail and the rowing boat in the foreground suggests the possibility of more leisurely activity on the Harbour.
The image is one of tranquillity amidst activity and prosperity. The still and even light embues the painting with a nostalgic quality further emphasising the changes to the Harbour that Martens was witnessing.