Conder, Charles (1868-1909) by Scholes, Robert

Charles Conder (1868-1909)

Charles Conder, or “K'” as he was known to his friends, was the third of five children and was born on 24 October 1868 at Tottenham, Middlesex, England. He arrived in Sydney on 13 June 1884 and met with Tom Roberts in Sydney in March 1888. Roberts encouraged Conder to visit Melbourne and in the Spring of 1888, Conder painted with Roberts at the Box Hill camp. From May 1889 to April 1890, Conder lived at Eaglemont and shared the old farmhouse on the Mount Eagle estate with Arthur Streeton. It was here that Conder and his fellow artists planned the 9 x 5 Impression Exhibition, at which Conder exhibited 46 works. He returned to Europe on 26 April 1890, and married Stella Maris Belford in Paris on 5 December 1901. Charles Conder died on 9 February 1909 at Virginia Water, Windsor, England.

A useful Australian review by Barry Oakley of Ann Galbally’s book about Conder, from :

When the 19-year-old Charles Conder decided to leave Sydney for Melbourne to further his artistic career, he couldn’t pay his back rent. The landlady, who was attracted to his blond good looks, told him there were other ways of settling debts. Conder obliged, and paid the price for the rest of his life. He caught syphilis. Once settled in prosperous post-gold rush Melbourne, he teamed up with two other rising stars: Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts. The trio would camp at rural-fringe Heidelberg and paint the landscape and the light. They were young and full of promise, and the golden summer of 1889-1890 none of them would ever forget. Streeton and Roberts were earnest nationalists but all Conder wanted to do was get to Paris. By the beginning of the 1890s, thanks to a generous bachelor uncle, he was there. No callow colonial he: Conder was born for bohemia, and soon set himself up in the mandatory run-down Montmartre studio and took to the mandatory Montmartre drink: absinthe. After the cafes, he’d go to the cabarets (especially the Moulin Rouge), and after the cabarets, the brothels, which he toured with the same dedication as his friend Toulouse-Lautrec. He took to artistic Paris, but artistic Paris didn’t much take to him. Despite its vaunted cosmopolitanism, Conder found that the art world could be as narrow as Melbourne’s, and his delicate landscapes and fans made little impact. Conder did better in London, and his fin de siècle exhibition there attracted favourable comments and buyers. But “poverty, depression and alcoholism were always quietly waiting for him”. He was rescued, at least from the first two, by a Canadian widow, Stella Belford, who was young, vivacious and, best of all, comfortably off. Marriage was good for him but not for his art, which rarely moved beyond the decorative. What Conder’s friend Arthur Symons called his faint hold on existence presents a biographical challenge: how to pin down someone who, as Oscar Wilde put it, was “so vague and mist-like”? In Charles Conder: The Last Bohemian, Ann Galbally surmounts the difficulty by filling in the cultural and social background, which highlights the elusive and attractive figure in front of it. Around the plein air idylls in Normandy and the elegance of Edwardian London hover darker presences. Excitement — pursuing a landscape or a lady — was increasingly followed by exhaustion. When the syphilis reached the final stage, there were delusions, violence and mental collapse. Conder spent his last seven months in an asylum, and died at 39. Of what the righteous called the Decadents — Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson, Toulouse-Lautrec — only Oscar Wilde got past 40. To Australian eyes, Charles Conder was always the one of the Heidelberg School who got away. Ann Galbally has now captured him and brought him back. G. R. S. Taylor in The New Age (NA 4.21:428) , had this to say about Conder:  The series by the late Charles Conder is somewhat difficult to place. There is no doubt about his “l’heure exquise”; it is a delicate poem in thought and expression. But most of the rest are certainly not intellectually inspiring so far as the subjects go. If you like them it must be on the “art for art’s sake” principle–which is a very sufficient and righteous reason. Their colour is usually beautiful, and they often have a sentiment of romance. That seems sufficient to make a good picture; and perhaps it is sufficient to leave Conder there. The end of a picture is not necessarily to be food for the intellect, as that term is usually understood.

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