Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Conder, Charles Edward (1868–1909)

by Ursula Hoff

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Charles Edward Conder (1868-1909), by unknown photographer

Charles Edward Conder (1868-1909), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 20167

Charles Edward Conder (1868-1909), painter, lithographer and fan-designer, was born on 24 October 1868 in London, the third child of James Conder and his first wife Ann, née Ayre. In 1870 Charles was taken to India where his father had been appointed executive railway engineer but after his mother's death in 1873 the boy was sent to England to be educated in Eastbourne. His father strongly opposed Charles's wish to become an artist and sent him to New South Wales to work under his uncle, William Jacomb Conder, an official in the Lands Department. On 24 March 1884 Charles sailed in the Windsor Castle and on 13 June arrived at Sydney. There he worked in the office of the Lands Department and in various trigonometrical survey camps in New South Wales, combining surveying with sketching and writing affectionate letters to William Conder's daughter Margaret Emma, most of which were later destroyed.

Late in 1886 or early in 1887 Conder became lithographic apprentice to Gibbs, Shallard & Co. in Sydney and from April to October 1887 his signed drawings appeared weekly in the Illustrated Sydney News published by this firm. He attended painting classes at the Art Society of New South Wales under the French-trained landscape painter, Alfred Daplyn, and made the acquaintance of the architect and future director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Victor Mann, and of Julian Ashton, Sydney's foremost open-air painter and portraitist, who took Conder on sketching tours along the Hawkesbury River. Conder also painted with Albert Fullwood, Frank Mahony and Benjamin Minns and was in contact with the Italian Marchese Girolamo Nerli, a fashionable society portraitist, the English cartoonist Phil May, then employed by the Sydney Bulletin, and perhaps with Blamire Young, artist and mathematics master at Katoomba College. All of these contributed to the formation of Conder's artistic personality; Daplyn, Ashton and Nerli influenced him toward various forms of open-air realism; Phil May and Blamire Young probably drew his attention to the art of Whistler, to Japanese art, aestheticism and the mood of the fin de siècle. Of special importance was his meeting with Tom Roberts who visited Sydney early in 1888; the two went painting together at Coogee and discussed Impressionism. Conder sent paintings to the annual exhibitions of the Art Society of New South Wales in 1887 and 1888 when his 'The Departure of the SS Orient' was purchased by the trustees for the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

From October 1888 to April 1890 Conder settled in Melbourne; there he first shared a studio with Roberts, then rented his own at Melbourne Chambers and later at Gordon Chambers, both in Collins Street. Together with (Sir) Arthur Streeton, Roberts and other painters he spent the summers of 1888-89 and 1889-90 as well as many weekends at the Eaglemont 'camp' near Heidelberg; nicknamed K. he was affectionately received into this group closely bound together by brotherly feelings; thus began his friendship with Roberts and Streeton which continued for many years after he had left Australia. He joined Roberts, Streeton, Frederick McCubbin and Charles Douglas Richardson in the exhibition of 9 x 5 impressions at Buxton Galleries, Swanston Street, on 17 August 1889 and contributed to the exhibitions of the Victorian Artists' Society of November 1888, May 1889 and March 1890. Among his patrons and admirers were Professor Henry Laurie, Theodore Fink, physicians such as Sir Henry Maudesley, Dr Felix Meyer, Dr John Springthorpe, the fin de siècle novelists Dr and Mrs Mannington Caffyn and among English visitors to Melbourne the Ibsen actress Janet Achurch.

An uncle having provided him with the means to study in Paris for two years, Conder left Melbourne on 26 April 1890 in the Austral and travelled via London to Paris, where he studied at Cormon's atelier and came under the influence of Louis Anquetin and Toulouse-Lautrec.

He took up residence in London in 1894 but made frequent journeys to Normandy and Dieppe where he visited his friends J. E. Blanche and Fritz Thaulow and painted garden and beach scenes in oil. After 1895 he became increasingly preoccupied with fan designs made in water-colour on silk which laid the foundations of his fame, and was encouraged by William Rothenstein to make lithographs. On 5 December 1900 Conder married Stella Maris Belford, a Canadian, and for the next six years led a social life of ease and elegance. Since 1907 frequently confined to a sanatorium, he died on 9 February 1909 at Virginia Water, Surrey, where he was buried. His wife died in 1912; there were no children.

Conder played a memorable part in the growth of the first Australian school of open-air painting. He infused his sunny, optimistic conception of Australian nature with wistful romantic overtones, and cast his pictures in decorative shapes and designs which reveal an affinity with aestheticism; both trends came to dominate his art during his later years.

Many anecdotes testify to Conder's gregariousness and his preoccupation with social life as well as his charming and attractive personality. Streeton admired his literary flair. Julian Ashton reported that Conder's favourite reading was Henry Murger's La Bohème. Conder understood the strength and weakness of talent and accepted his limitations. In Australia and later abroad he was carried by an intimate circle of fellow artists and admirers who appreciated his exquisiteness.

One of the many portraits of Conder by Toulouse-Lautrec is in the Aberdeen Gallery.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Smith (ed), A Catalogue of Australian Oil Paintings in the National Art Gallery of New South Wales 1875-1952 (Syd, 1953)
  • U. Hoff, Charles Conder: His Australian Years (Melb, 1960)
  • Bernard Smith, Australian Painting 1788-1960 (Melb, 1962)
  • N. Peacock, ‘Charles Conder’, U. Thieme and F. Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler (Leipzig, 1912)
  • Times (London), 11 Feb 1909
  • Virginia Spate, Tom Roberts and Australian Impressionism (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1962)
  • Margaret Conder and Tom Roberts, letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ursula Hoff, 'Conder, Charles Edward (1868–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/conder-charles-edward-3249/text4913, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Charles Edward Conder (1868-1909), by unknown photographer

Charles Edward Conder (1868-1909), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 20167