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Late nineteenth-century Australian painting delights in story telling. Even the Impressionists Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917) and Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) painted pictures about bushrangers, the toils of the pioneers, and days and nights of dalliance. With an inclination towards the anecdotal, Charles Conder was no exception, as seen in The Fatal Colours 1888 (Private collection) and The Fortune of War 1888, the painting currently on offer. Conder continued the good story into his 9 x 5 paintings; How We Lost Poor Flossie 1889, in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia, is a classic example of Impressionist painting and anecdote combined. (Flossie, McCubbins dog, was noticed making friends with a stranger and was never seen again.) The title of The Fortune of War, carefully inscribed with red paint in the lower right of the composition, excites the imagination with romantic expectations, encouraged by the slightly swashbuckling poses, figures turbaned and waisted in red, all darkly bold against the lighter background. Red as a metaphor and focal point appealed to Conder. In The Fatal Colours it arouses the interest of an approaching bull. And again in All on a Summers Day, 1888 (Art Gallery of South Australia) the now opened red umbrella seems like an enlarged halo.

What inspired Conder to paint The Fortune of War and why is it so exactly dated? (Conder was given to more detailed dating of his works at this time as seen in the several paintings Bronte Beach, Queens Birthday; Coogee Bay , Easter 88; All on a Summers Day April 1888; Springtime, Aug 88.) Does it relate to an historic happening or is it a tale from the imagination? The answer is fascinating. The year 1888 was important for Conder. First, he painted two of his finest masterpieces of Australian Impressionism - in Sydney, Departure of the Orient Circular Quay, purchased that year by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and in Melbourne A Holiday at Mentone, now in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. The year also marked his move from Sydney to Melbourne, where, with Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton, he joined the artists camps and devoted himself to his practice. Young, tall and handsome, Conder was not yet twenty. Being in the very springtime of his youth, as talent blossomed into genius in homage to beauty, his sparkling paintings included The Farm, Richmond and Springtime (both in the National Gallery of Victoria), A Taste for Literature (Art Gallery of Ballarat), and Tea-Time (Art Gallery of South Australia), an extraordinarily precocious body of work.

Previously, Conder had worked as an illustrator for the Illustrated Sydney News. A good example is the full page of drawings, published in the issue of 16 May 1887, under the title Peeps at Coogee.1 He was also active painting out of doors. As Ann Galbally noted, Conders progress as a plein-air painter and as a black-and-white illustrator went in tandem in the period 1887-88.2 From Frederick McCubbin in Melbourne with the Australasian Sketcher to Rupert Bunny (1864-1947) in Paris for the London Magazine of Art, illustration was a good source of income; but it had its limitations. Conders art grew more through contact with other Sydney artists - early on with Julian Ashton (1851-1942), Sydneys leading out-door painter, and then Girolamo Nerli (1860-1926), whose influence is so manifest in Departure of the Orient Circular Quay. It was a Sydney visit by Tom Roberts in March-April of 1888, however, that led to Conders rapid development as an Impressionist painter. On Easter Day they painted together at Coogee, creating the atmospheric companion pieces Holiday Sketch at Coogee (Art Gallery of New South Wales) by Roberts and Coogee Bay (National Gallery of Victoria) by Conder. When one compares the darker realism of Conders Low Tide, Hawkesbury River of 1887 with the atmospheric lyricism of Herricks Blossoms c1888, (both in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) the leap forward is remarkable.

While the sensuous feel of the paint in The Fortune of War may not be entirely in keeping with the subject, its captivating visual appeal allies itself with the intrigue aroused by the title.  Painted in the centenary year of settlement, does it recall a dark moment from the days of 1788? Mary Eagle in her research on this painting observed that a hundred years before, on 21 May 1788 a convict was killed and another seriously injured by Aborigines in one of the first fatal conflicts between settlers and Aborigines.3 She also mentions an allied though untraced black and white oil painting, Attacked by Natives of May 1888. Death is one of the fates of war, and likewise burial where you fell - on a lonely stretch of beach. The pistol and empty bottle are cast aside. While the shadows are cast like fate, the painting has all the fresh air of a Sydney beach scene.

As The Fortune of War is dated 20 May 1888, it is possible to place it exactly within Conders development. In the same month of April in which Conder worked with Roberts at Coogee, he also painted All on a Summers Day. Like The Fortune of War, its title is written (in red) across the bottom of the painting. The two oils, Bronte Beach (National Gallery of Victoria) and Bronte Beach, Queens Birthday (D. R. Sheumack Collection), also carry their titles as inscriptions, the added Queens Birthday giving us the sure date of 1 June 1888. Apart from the beaches special appeal to artists, a Sydney journal reminds us of their general popularity: The 69(th) birthday of the Queen was kept up as enthusiastically as usual by the good people of Sydney, who flocked to the various seaside resorts and places of amusement.4 The broad expanse of beach and breaking waves in Bronte Beach were rendered with all the freedom and nigh transparency of a watercolour, whereas Bronte Beach, Queens Birthday has more the structure of oil painting. The figures in both seem added, Mary Eagle, noting in her studies on Conder, that the figures in Bronte Beach were probably painted back in the studio.5

Through its inscribed date, we know that The Fortune of War was painted just under two weeks before the Bronte pictures. It shares with them Conders distinctive blond palette and that feeling of open space peopled with figures of colourful attraction, all handled with a breath-taking economy of means. They are also characterised by an overall flatness as the eye climbs the picture plane through horizontal bands. In The Fortune of War this is interrupted by the verticality of the figures to give emphasis to the action taking place. While the slain cruciform figure takes on a bit of both, even his grave is shallow to avoid the illusion of depth. Again in keeping with his practice, Conder used a range of brushes, those of breadth for the landscape and finer brushes for the detailed drawing on the figures. Moreover, the brief, horizontal strokes for the tree trunks appear again in Springtime and related compositions. Above all there is the imaginative approach. Charles Gibson, in his 1914 study of Conder, so rightly observed: He composed his work from his surroundings, but never attempted to make a literal copy of what was before him. Imagination was always the mainspring of his art; even in these early days there was infinite promise.6



1. See Galbally, A., Charles Conder: the Last Bohemian, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Publishing, 2002, p16

2. Ibid, p15

3. Eagle, M., Australian Paintings, Prints & Australian Craft, Christies, Melbourne, 9 May 1989, lot 276

4. The Queens Birthday, Australian Town and Country Journal, Sydney, 2 June 1888, p13

5. Eagle, M., The Oil Paintings of Charles Conder in the National Gallery of, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1997, p20

6. Gibson, C., Charles Conder: His Life and Work, The Bodley Head, London, 1914, p26





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