Albin Martin was born, probably in 1812 or 1813, at Stower Provost (Stour Provost), Dorsetshire, England, the son of Harry Martin, an Anglican clergyman, and his wife, Elizabeth Gatehouse. He became a pupil of the well-known poet William Barnes, before attending grammar school in Salisbury. In 1833 he entered Jesus College at the University of Cambridge. His father, however, had died in 1832 and Albin, in charge of his own future, turned to art and moved in 1834 to London as a pupil of the artist John Linnell.
Linnell, who had largely supported William Blake in his last years, became a valued friend, and when Martin later came to New Zealand he brought with him 21 of Blake's drawings for Illustrations of the Book of Job. These were sold in London as Blake originals in 1928, but recent scholarship suggests that they may have been copies made by Linnell.
Martin made the acquaintance of the artists Samuel Palmer (Linnell's son-in-law) and George Richmond. In February 1839 he joined them in Rome and travelled with them to Florence, painting, sketching and visiting galleries. He returned to London, and there, on 30 November 1841, married Jemima Frances Martha Kempe, daughter of the antiquary Alfred John Kempe. The couple spent 2½ years in Italy, in the region of Naples, before returning to England in 1844 to try their hands at farming land which Albin had inherited in the Blackmoor Vale in Dorset.
In 1851 Albin, Jemima and their six children set sail for New Zealand on the Cashmere, arriving at Auckland on 19 October. Albin was crippled with gout and had to be carried to a house a fellow passenger had found for him at St George's Bay. Ten days at the hot springs at Waiwera cured him and he was soon playing cricket and making his first sketches of the New Zealand scenery. He bought 95 acres on the Pakuranga Stream, and settled to the business of fencing and working the land, missing old friends but delighting in a landscape which he thought finer than anything he had seen before. He compared it to the drawings of Albrecht Dürer and made oil sketches to send to Linnell for sale in England. Yet he was so faithful to his English and Italian masters that these paintings might almost have been done in Italy.
In 1856 a legacy from Albin's family relieved financial stress. By this time he was taking an interest in photography: he was reported to be making watercolour sketches from photographs, and in January 1865 the Illustrated London News published engravings of his sketches of goldmining sites at Coromandel.
During the wars of the 1860s Martin joined the Otahuhu Division of the Royal Cavalry Volunteers, but saw no active service. From 1861 until 1868 he represented Franklin on the Auckland Provincial Council, and in 1864 was appointed to the Public Buildings Commission. In 1869 he was one of the founding members of the Auckland Society of Artists, the first of its kind in New Zealand or Australia. He regularly exhibited at the society's biennial shows during the 1870s, sometimes offering paintings from his years in Italy. In 1879 he judged the Auckland Free School of Fine Art prize-giving. After the failure of the Auckland Society of Artists in 1880, Martin became the first treasurer and later vice president of the Auckland Society of Arts established later that year, and was again a frequent exhibitor. He also served on a committee to judge a competition for a design for the new library and art gallery.
In the 1880s Martin's health deteriorated; eventually the farm was sold and the family moved to Ellerslie. A long-serving member of the Anglican diocesan synod, Martin secured a splendid gift for the new Anglican church at Ellerslie when he wrote to an old protégé, Alfred Bell, possibly the finest glass painter in Europe, and was rewarded with a set of 13 stained glass windows, which were installed in 1885. For the next three years, until his death in 1888, he served as a trustee of the Mackelvie art collection bequeathed to the people of Auckland.
In 1886 the artist Robert Atkinson, recently arrived from England, exhibited a fine portrait of Martin, which is now in the Auckland City Art Gallery along with a pencil-and-chalk portrait by John Linnell and a large collection of Martin's own paintings and watercolours. Albin Martin had brought to New Zealand a tradition of landscape painting firmly based in the eighteenth century. His work differed significantly from the topographical style of landscape realism produced by contemporaries such as J. B. C. Hoyte and Alfred Sharpe, and he was a vocal critic of the movement to produce a distinctively New Zealand art. Yet his links with well-known artists in England gave a kind of confidence to the fledgeling art community in Auckland. His original intention of farming had brought few rewards, but he had lived by his ideals and typified the cultured gentleman immigrant. He died at Auckland on 7 August 1888, survived by his wife, who died in 1911, and eight children.