CONDER, Charles (1868-1909)

CONDER, Charles (1868-1909)
was the third son of James Conder, an engineer, and his first wife, formerly Anne Ayres. His ancestors appear to have been ordinary middle-class folk without any suggestion of artistic talent. Conder's latest biographer, John Rothenstein, rejects the often-repeated story of his descent from Roubiliac the famous sculptor. He was born in London on 24 October 1868 and educated at a boarding school at Eastbourne. Little is known of his childhood, except that he showed an impatience of restraint and early evinced a desire to practise art. In 1883 he was sent to Australia to work under his uncle W. J. Conder, who was an official in the lands department at Sydney' A few months later he was working in a trigonometrical survey camp, but was much more interested in his sketch book and was already trying his hand at painting in oil. After two years in the country, Conder returned to Sydney and endeavoured to obtain work as an illustrator. He met A. J. Fisher and Frank Mahony (q.v.) who helped him to obtain a position on the Illustrated Sydney News. Another artist, G. Nerli (q.v.), whom Conder met about this time, influenced to some extent his early paintings. Yet a more important influence was to come, for in 1887 Conder met Tom Roberts (q.v.) at Mosman, who talked eloquently to him on the new theory of art called impressionism. A few months later Conder joined Roberts and Streeton in Melbourne, and worked in the open air at Eaglemont, near the suburb of Heidelberg. Conder was then a tall, loosely built youth, still under 20 years of age, strong in body yet "sympathetic with delicate and feminine things". So wrote Streeton of him, and in another letter he says, "Though of 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 Rubaiyat".
Conder had his first success in 1888 when his "Departure of the S.S. Orient", exhibited at the Art Society of New South Wales, was purchased for the national gallery at Sydney. Next year the famous 9 x 5 exhibition was opened in Melbourne on 17 August 1889. Streeton, just 21, exhibited 40 pictures, Conder, a few months younger, showed 46. The prices ranged from one to five guineas, and Conder was pleased to have had his name before the public and to have made between 30 and 40 pounds. He began to long for Europe, and in October 1889 his uncle agreed to make him a yearly allowance so that he could study in Paris. In April 1890 he left Australia and never returned. In a letter to Roberts, dated 2 May, he acknowledged his debt to him and to Streeton.
In Paris he worked hard, he also played hard, and at intervals his devotion to wine and women threatened his health if it did not greatly affect his art. He became an entirely individualistic painter. He may have owed something to Watteau, but his art stood apart from the influences of his day, though his friend Anquetin may have helped him to improve his drawing, never a strong point with him. He developed a gift for painting fans and painted much in water-colour on silk. He began to be recognized in France; the government bought one of his water-colours and he was made an associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts. He became friendly with William Rothenstein, with Emile Blanche, with D. S. MacColl, who in an article in the Studio helped to bring his work before the British public. He was frequently in money difficulties, as the prices obtained for his fans were low, often no more than 10 guineas, but in 1900 he was fortunate in meeting a young widow of independent means, Stella Maris Belford, of the type that is willing to love and cherish a genius whatever his frailties might be. They were married on 5 December 1900, and her influence was strong enough to enable Conder to pull himself together to some extent. For a time his health improved, but during the last three years of his life there was a gradual brain deterioration. His wife did all that was possible, spending the whole of her fortune in trying to save a man whose case was hopeless. He died at Virginia Water, near London, on 9 April 1909. His wife died three years later. There were no children.
At the close of the 19th century Conder had a great reputation, in 1938 his biographer could say "he is almost forgotten". After a well-known artist dies a period of depreciation often follows, and many years pass before it is possible to give the artist his true place. Conder had great imagination, a beautiful sense of colour, and exquisite taste. He painted largely from memory, his forms are inclined to be tenuous, and the drawing is not strong, but it is unlikely that so individual a talent will ever be quite forgotten. Handsome and personally charming, the best part of Conder's life was spent in a world of imagination peopled by his own creations. He is represented in the national galleries at Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, and in the Tate and several other European collections.
W. Moore, The Story of Australian Art; John Rothenstein, The Life and Death of Conder; R. H. Croll, Tom Roberts, The Father of Australian Landscape Painting; personal knowledge.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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