Published  30/11/2004

Charles Conder: Retrospective

Charles Conder: Retrospective

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

The Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney recently celebrated the work of Charles Conder, the last of the Australian Impressionists to have a retrospective exhibition.

The exhibition (2003-2004) was instigated by Dr Ann Galbally in 1998 whose recent biography, Charles Conder: The Last Bohemian, (Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press, 2002) is a comprehensive account of Charles Conder’s career, which began when he was a precocious adolescent in New South Wales. The Sydney Gallery, in fact, gave Conder his first official recognition by purchasing 'Departure of the Orient - Circular Quay' in 1888.

Dr Galbally together with Barry Pearce, Head Curator of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, curated the exhibition. Their catalogue is scholarly and well produced. Appropriately, there is included an amusing essay: Confessions of a collector, by Barry Humphries, a 'Conder fan' from his student days and a serious collector of his work and that of other artists of the 1890s.

As a 19 year old boy just out of school and already an enthusiastic reader of Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, and their 'decadent' contemporaries, I was intrigued by Conder’s Melbourne-Montmartre connection. Here was an artist who, in his youth, had painted in and around my hometown and then, within a couple of years, had journeyed to England and France and befriended - and been admired by - the likes of Oscar Wilde and Toulouse-Lautrec. It was the kind of transition which in wildest fantasy I dreamed of achieving.

(Charles Conder, 1868-1909, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2003, p.33)

The brief career of Charles Conder provides a salutary indicator of the effect of fin-de-siécle living upon the talented output of a single outstanding painter. It is rendered all the more poignant by the superb and carefree romantic impressionism that Conder in his early twenties displayed in Australia. Less than 20 years later he was dead. Thirty years on, he was all but forgotten save in the provincial galleries of Australia. Yet in that country his talent knew no limits. A gradual decadence consumed him between Dieppe, Paris and London. Even a secure and happy marriage was only to remove his creative urge and to precipitate his premature yet world-weary collapse. Conder might seem to all but epitomise fin-de-siécle 1890s man; in his life, work and early death.

In May 1898 DS MacColl wrote for The Studio an article entitled The Paintings on Silk of Charles Conder. It was the first tribute of this kind that Conder had received, and one of the best. MacColl had known Conder and his work for six years, and the eulogy (a prose poem) was the culmination of his esteem for the artist.1 Sadly, Charles Conder died some ten years later in 1909, aged only 37. In 1938 in The Life and Death of Conder, John Rothenstein observed:

For a decade before his death and a few years afterwards he rated high among the English painters of the age. DS MacColl praised him with untiring eloquence. Charles Ricketts, on a solemn occasion, called him 'one of the most exquisite personalities in modern art'; Laurence Housman, 'a man of almost incalculable genius'. Toulouse-Lautrec delighted in him. Anquetin looked at him to give a new impetus to the art of Europe. The French Government honoured him by the purchase of one of his pictures, others were acquired by collectors of such diverse but discriminating tastes as Sir Hugh Lane, André Gide, Jacques-Emile Blanche, the younger Coquelin and Wilson Steer. The style of feminine beauty he created set a fashion. After less than 30 years, he is almost forgotten.2

Charles Conder’s life was clouded by emotional instability; he lacked self-discipline and showed disdain for a useful life, and he abused his health to the severest extent with alcohol and in the pursuit of endless women. He worked erratically and was very poor at business. Oscar Wilde recalled, 'Dear Conder! Always trying to persuade one to buy a fan for 10 guineas for which one would be very happy to pay 20!'3 Conder got on very badly with art dealers, and consequently the lack of success of his work meant that for most of his life he was plagued by poverty. Yet Conder’s works display a total contrast to a depressing life lived under the shadow of premature death. An arcadia 'peopled by dreamy, capricious figures who lead lives of luxurious idleness'. Conder’s world is exquisite and delicate, like the materials - watercolour and silk - that he used and in it life is tranquil. There is no violence, no harshness for his privileged beings. The dichotomy between the often depressing and sordid life led by Conder and the exquisite beauty he sought to portray makes him a romantic and fascinating example of 1890s man. The fact, too, that his work declined greatly towards the end of his short life arouses curiosity and begs questions.

Although in his early years as an artist Conder worked extensively from nature, his real feeling was for poetry and for the imagination. During his time in Paris he was influenced by Symbolism and by a sense of the theatrical. Rosicrucianism had a marked effect on Conder. 'The cult of pure idealism in art against all imitation of nature.'4 It gave him the confidence to follow his instinct towards creating an ideal world. Conder was from an early age interested in the notion of transience. At times his work appeared very close in spirit to Watteau, and he used images of the 18th century fête galant to create a lost world. Present realities played no part in Conder's art. In 1895 Max Beerbohm met Conder, and he remembered him as 'a sick man, immersed in dreams, unable to look realities in the face'.5 It is quite probable that the knowledge of an early death (from the syphilis that plagued him from the age of 19) attracted Conder to fleeting moments of beauty; his own sense of personal vulnerability and frailty acknowledged the ephemeral aspects of nature, of falling petals, delicate blossoms, birds and the colour blue. Conder often quoted Omar Khayyám's line: 'The bird of Time has but a little way to fly - and lo, the Bird is on the Wing.'

Charles Conder's early years as an artist were spent in Australia - a lost paradise, in retrospect of his career. His mother had died in India when Conder was five years old, and he was sent back to England to boarding school. Then at the age of 15 he was sent to an uncle (his father's brother) in Sydney, who was Chief Trigonometrical Surveyor in New South Wales. Conder worked in the Sydney office of the Lands Department of New South Wales and then for almost two years at survey camps in the country. According to fellow workers there, Conder had no intention of becoming a surveyor and the notebook he always carried was solely for sketching. His father, however, had forbidden Conder to become an artist. At the end of 1886 Conder applied to work at a firm of lithographic printers in Sydney and soon after began a lithographic apprenticeship. As it turned out, he didn't stay but took a studio in the city in Sydney. He attended classes at the Art Society School conducted by Julian Ashton, a leading painter in Sydney and in 1886 he won a prize for the 'best painting from nature'.7

Conder's natural talent was recognised and duly blossomed under the influence of two painters; Girolamo Nerli from Sienna, who had been in contact with the Macchaioli and painted in the open air, and Tom Roberts, 'the father of Australian Impressionism'.8

Conder and Roberts formed an immediate friendship when they met in Sydney in 1888. Roberts was ten years older than Conder and he had an academic training in Melbourne, followed by travels in Spain, England and France (1881-85), during which time he acquired considerable knowledge of Whistler and the theories of plein-air. Roberts was an accomplished portraitist in Melbourne and painted in camps outside Melbourne with Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton. While Roberts was in Sydney in 1888 he and Conder painted together on numerous occasions. Conder was a quick student; with paintings such as 'Departure of the Orient - Circular Quay' (1888) it is hard to believe that Conder was only 20 years of age and had been drawing and painting for a mere two to three years. Using a high viewpoint it is an ambitious and finely executed work, both melancholy and amusing. He creates delightful patterns of umbrellas and animated figures against the strong division of the picture plane with the quay, buildings and ships. Exhibited in 1888 at the Art Society in Sydney, it was acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Among the landscapes produced by Conder in 1888 was 'Herrick's Blossoms', epitomising much in Conder's mind that he carried into later works while in Paris and London. 'Nothing could convey better the lyricism and enchanting light-heartedness of Conder's Australian years than these springtime scenes.'9 Conder's move to Melbourne towards the end of 1888 was inspired largely by the fact Tom Roberts had returned there and on arrival he briefly shared a studio with Roberts. He soon met other artists and visited the camps outside Melbourne: Boxhill, Mentone and then Eaglemont. Years later he looked back on 1889 as the happiest time in his life. The '9 x 5' exhibition, so well known to Australians as the radical exhibition of 'Impressionist' works by Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder, took place in August 1889 in Melbourne. It included 46 works by Conder. Its motto was 'an effect is only momentary: so an Impressionist tries to find his place'. The works were painted on cigar box lids measuring 9" by 5". Conder’s 'Old Time is still A-Flying' is typical of the 9 x 5 work he did. The title is taken from a poem by Herrick:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old time is still a-flying
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying

Conder's painting captures the frailty and transience of youth and beauty.10 'How We Lost Poor Flossie' of the same year relates to Japanese prints and to Whistler. It is elegant and misty and shows Conder's great design sense.

In Australia Conder developed fine powers of observation. 'It was surely these scenes at Heidelberg that gave him the first hint of the Arcadia he was destined to create.'11 Arthur Streeton described him thus: 'Though the same age he seemed 30 years my senior in knowledge of humanity and worldly affairs: he knew all about Browning, Carlyle, Herrick and The Rubáiyát.'12 Although Conder played a leading part in the development of an Australian Impressionist school, he was - as Barry Humphries wrote in Confessions of a Conder Fan - neither Australian by birth nor by stylistic affinity. Nor was he an Impressionist at heart; objectivity did not feature, but his natural inclination for poetry and fantasy prompted his return to Europe. In 1890, aged 22, Conder left Melbourne for Paris, where an uncle had offered to support him for two years.

Conder lived in Paris from 1890 to 1895. He led a passionate and exhausting existence, and most of his painting it seems was done on trips away from Paris to Vétheuil, Dennemont and the coast at Yport.13 In the review of the exhibition at the Société Nationale in 1893, DS MacColl thought that of the landscape painters, 'Conder alone held that equilibrium between observation, feeling, composition of form and colour which made "the beautiful picture".' In the mind of MacColl, 'Conder reduced nature to the music of colours and evoked perfumed and poetic moods. [He] was to be the main spokesman for art for art's sake and the aestheticism of the "Yellow Nineties".'14

Conder developed his imaginative work, at times illustrating stories or poems. 'The Fairy Prince', for example, a Wagnerian figure, was produced in The Yellow Book15 in 1897. Anquetin inspired Conder with a love of Watteau. Many of Conder's large paintings on silk and his delicate fans portray, 'the dream of an elegant pastoral life, of an artificial existence, far from the commonplaces of the everyday and removed to timeless part'.16 Conder also made designs for dresses, silk panels and wall decorations.17 They were praised highly by Conder's contemporaries. His use of colour was outstanding, the slightly blurred images on silk were original and delicate, and he soon established a reputation for his talent.

From 1895 to 1898 Conder spent a lot of time in Dieppe, where he was mostly very happy with only spells of the debauched life. At times he worked intensely. According to Blanche, there was 'something feverish in his creative urge; later on it was to come near to madness'.18 In 1896 Aubrey Beardsley was in Dieppe as well, very close to dying. They were drawn together by what Rothenstein described as 'their common nostalgia for the romantic past, and their allies in the face of a derisive, even malevolent English philistinism'.19 Charles Ricketts wrote in the Burlington Magazine shortly after Conder's death that 'Conder’s influence changed the course of Beardsley’s designs into an interpretation of "modernity"'.20 Conder's contribution to Beardsley's art was essentially intangible, associated with mood and nuance. Conder worked and lived by instinct, whereas Beardsley's approach was more precise and intellectual. The circle to which Conder belonged in Dieppe included not only Beardsley but also Oscar Wilde, who went there upon his release from jail. Many artists and writers visited from London and Paris: Max Beerbohm, Walter Sickert, Leonard Smithers, Arthur Symons and Jacques-Emile Blanche.

In May 1899 Conder had his first one man exhibition at the Carfax in London. There were 24 works, mostly watercolours on silk, including 14 fans. Although Conder was known in London, his work was not. In reproduction his work had appeared in The Studio, The Yellow Book, The Saturday Review and The Savoy and Pageant. They had not, however, done justice to his mastery of colour, and so the Carfax exhibition had quite an impact.

In the same year William Rothenstein reintroduced Conder to lithography. Among his first works in the new medium were illustrations for Balzac's La Fille aux yeux d’or, entitled 'The Balzac Set'. Conder had concentrated very little on line as his natural talent was with colour, but the Balzac lithographs were in fact a great achievement. They 'show a dynamic force apparent in no other work of Conder's. The profiles are powerful, the shadows menacing.'21 Many other lithographs, including those in the exhibition, were produced by Conder soon after the Balzac Set but none has the strength and resolve of the Balzac works. A scholarly treatment of the work done by Conder in the period 1890-1909 is marred by the fact that the materials Conder chose to work with were delicate and have not survived very well. We have to rely on the evidence of the strong and sensitive Australian works done in watercolour on paper and oil on canvas or hardboard and the praise of contemporaries to realise Conder's outstanding talent. In his late work the colours have faded and the silk - sometimes of poor quality - has rotted.

Rothenstein's account of Conder's time in Paris is interesting and detailed, assembled from many letters and contemporaries’ accounts. According to him, the first two years in Paris were beneficial to Conder, not so much for what he achieved than for what he experienced.22 He looked at pictures in museums and studios, he talked, he read widely and met many artists; the most influential on his life and work were Toulouse-Lautrec and Anquetin. In the spring of 1890 he went to the country where his health was restored and where he painted landscapes and gardens. He liked the human scale of the landscape in France, modelled by humans, compared with the wildness of the Australian bush. In March 1891, Conder held a joint exhibition with William Rothenstein in Paris. Conder showed paintings of blossoms and drawings inspired by Omar Khayyám; the work still retained the freshness and spirit of the Australian paintings. Figaro reviewed it favourably, and L'Art français reproduced a number of exhibits; it was praised by Degas and Pissaro. At the end of 1892 Conder was establishing himself in France as a serious imaginative painter. However, his personal life began to undermine his creative powers.

Rothenstein describes Conder's decline:

The longer he stayed in Paris the more often was his development, so rich with promise, hindered by dissipation. Brandy-and-soda, which at first he had rarely drunk before the evening, became an hourly need, and he acquired the dangerous taste for absinthe in addition …

Nearly any woman, glorified by his imagination, became desirable. One amorous adventure followed another. There was a gargantuan flavour about them. With a woman or two he would disappear for a time. For days, sometimes even weeks, they would remain closeted together … Suddenly with money and passion spent he would go back with fanatic zeal to work. At the end of 1891, after 18 months in Paris, came the first of the series of illnesses that ultimately led to his collapse and death.23

Conder suffered poor health and spells of acute illness throughout the 1890s - rheumatism, severe gout, insomnia - causing him depression and despair. It was naturally difficult for him to work consistently, and he tended to work in intense bouts. In June 1900, to the amazement of his friends, Conder met Stella Maris a young widow with whom he fell in love and married in December the same year. Although their union was destined to end in tragedy, it was a very happy marriage. They became totally emotionally dependent on one another, and she devoted to his every need. Not only that, she had a large private income enabling them to live luxuriously and to entertain lavishly. In 1904 they lived at 91 Cheyne Walk in a beautiful 18th century house overlooking the river. For the first time in Condor's adult life he kept regular house, ate nourishing food and became relatively temperate. He did not have to stay in cafes, streets or boarding houses, and during the first years of marriage his health improved.24 With it came, not a steady output of the fine work, but something of a decline. In these years it is not really possible to blame Conder’s health for his inability to paint well or do justice to the talent his early work displayed. Indeed, as Rothenstein suggested, the decline in his work seems more related to a loss of incentive:

So great a change in circumstances and habit as, after his marriage, Conder underwent could not escape reflection in his art. Until then his life was mostly unhappy, a man in love with romance had been familiar with abject poverty, who worshipped dignity, had been compelled to play the sponger and the furtive debtor, who delighted in luxury, to flit from one mean lodging to another. Much of his life had certainly been passed in the gayest resorts, in the company of brilliant men, admiring friends, pretty women - and that is not little. But those who have written about Conder have … insisted on the 'high sports' … to the neglect of the black weeks or remorse, constantly recurrent, during which, with hope extinguished, he moped inert, incapable of facing the real world.25

No longer did Conder need a dream world, to aspire to - a languid and luxurious existence - when he and Stella could give costume balls in their own house, when he was the host to members of society in London or France. Luxury became accessible, then familiar.26 The spirit that delighted such stern judges and contemptuous men as Anquetin and Lautrec grew listless; and the unerring sense of colour and rhythm the best of his earlier works reveal was seldom at his command.27

June 1906 was an unfortunate turning point in Conder's life. He was lying on a sofa, smoking a cigarette in the company of Stella and a friend, when he was unable to respond to a question they asked. He was paralysed, and various doctors confirmed that Conder's condition was incurable. He recovered to an extent with long spells in sanatoria, and wrote the most touching and beautiful letters to Stella and several friends. His loneliness and his longing for Stella during these periods were intense and desperate. Remarkably, Charles Conder survived until 9 April 1909 due to Stella Maris’s unfailing love and devotion; indeed, her entire fortune was spent on keeping him comfortable and alive for as long as possible. After his death she had nothing to live for and survived him by only three years.

To import the manner of poetry into life is inconceivable in the admirable part for which the Englishman casts himself, and the very women, those superb Amazons, can be thought of as wielding a whip, but hardly a fan. This race, that produces the finest of poetry, treats it as something alien, cuts out endearment from its tongue, and blushes at any graceful embroidery upon the acts of life. The profession of poet it regards askance.28

1. Rothenstein J. The Life and Death of Conder. London: Dent, 1938. p146.
2. Ibid, p.xiii.
3. Ibid, p.148.
4. Ibid, p.111.
5. Ibid, p.119.
6. Hoff U. Charles Conder. Melbourne: Landsdowne Press, 1972. p69.
7. Ibid, p.15.
8. Ibid, p.16.
9. Ibid, p.24
10. Ibid, p.38
11. Rothenstein, op.cit., p19.
12. Ibid, p.25.
13. Hoff, op.cit., p.58.
14. Ibid, p.58.
15. The Yellow Book. Vol XIII.
16. Hoff, op.cit., p.64.
17. Ibid, p.64.
18. Rothenstein, op.cit., p.119.
19. Ibid, p.135.
20. Burlington Magazine. Vol XV, pp8-14.
21. Rothenstein, op.cit., p.168.
22. Ibid, p.70.
23. Ibid, pp.73-75.
24. Ibid, p.207.
25. Ibid, p.206.
26. Ibid, p.206.
27. Ibid, p.207
28. MacColl DS. The Paintings on Silk of Charles Conder. The Studio Vol XIII. No. 62, May 1898, p.237.

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