Painter Charles Conder is best known in Australia for his association with the Heidelberg School and his involvement with the famous 9 x 5 Impressions Exhibition of 1889. A bohemian, England-born Conder worked largely in Paris and London where he mixed with literary and artistic greats including the likes of Oscar Wilde, Audrey Beardsley and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Anglo-British painter Charles Conder was born on 24 October 1868 in Tottenham, Middlesex, the son of a civil engineer. His father sent him to Sydney in 1884, where he spent two years working in surveying camps in rural New South Wales. In 1887 to 1888 he worked as a line illustrator for the Illustrated Sydney News and studied painting with Julian Ashton and A.J. Daplyn. He made plein air excursions in the Hawkesbury region and around Sydney’s beaches, including Coogee, where he painted with Tom Roberts . In Sydney, aged 19, he contracted syphilis from his landlady.
In 1888, he joined Roberts in Melbourne and painted with Frederick McCubbin at Mentone and Roberts and Arthur Streeton at Eaglemont. In 1889, he studied at the National Gallery School, Melbourne, and was a major instigator with Roberts and Streeton of the ’9 by 5 Impressions’ exhibition, named after the size of the small cedar panels they painted on. In his few years in Australia, Conder produced a remarkable body of work in which he expressed his natural instinct for colour and design. In 1890, he returned to Europe and studied in Paris at the Académie Julian, where he became friends with William Rothenstein, and in 1891 he attended the Académie Cormon.
While frequenting the cabarets at Montmartre, Conder became a friend of Louis Anquetin and Toulouse-Lautrec. Bohemian to the core, he lived a life of passionate excess, but was also dedicated to his work, dividing his time between painting in the countryside and in his city studio. For a period from 1893 he moved between London, Dieppe and Paris. His English friends included the writers and artists Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons and Oscar Wilde, as well as Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon. He was also a friend of Jacques-Emile Blanche and Walter Sickert.
Conder made many works using the medium of watercolour on silk and painted innumerable designs for fans, which resulted in some his most exquisite images. He created a poetic world evoking the spirit of fêtes galantes , with lovers and troubadours in beautiful settings. He also produced a significant body of lithographs based on the tales by Balzac and Murger’s La Vie de Bohème .
In 1898, Conder visited La Roche-Guyon with Rothenstein and others and, in 1899, he painted at Vattetot-sur-mer with Augustus John, William Orpen, Rothenstein and Albert Rutherston. In 1901, he married Stella Belford and in 1904 settled in Chelsea, London. In 1904, the Australian-born patron, Sir Edmund Davis, commissioned him to design rooms for his home in Lansdowne Road, London. Charles Conder gradually descended into syphilitic madness and died in an asylum for the incurably insane on 9 February 1909 at Virginia Water, Surrey, aged 40.
Gray, Dr Anne Note: Head of Australian Art, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, ACT