27. CHARLES CONDER The Verandah: Baroness A. de Meyer and Friends
Conder captures a moment in time by the coast, perhaps Dieppe, with the subtle transition of colour from the distant sky and sea to the elaborate elegant costumes worn by the leisured Edwardian women. All faces are the same. Likenesses would detract from the moment, the freshness of the sea air, the newcomer in transition from a promenade below, about to join the group. All is dream-like and beautiful to behold. It is not difficult to be refreshed by this picture each time it is seen.
The Baroness de Meyer was a friend of Conder. They met in Dieppe when Jacques Émile Blanche invited him to join his family at their holiday retreat. Their neighbour was the Duchess of Caracciolo and her daughter, Olga, after whom the house was named- the Villa Olga. Later, Olga became the Baroness de Meyer when her godfather, King Edward VII, arranged an introduction and a new life for her in London. Her salons were both famous and infamous. Conder and Blanche were intermittent attendees.
There is a disproportionately high intaglioed seat which overlooks Coogee Bay. On closer inspection, it is apparent that this is not placed as an ergonomic or exercise challenge but to remind us of the location where memorable pictures were painted by Charles Conder (1868-1909), Tom Roberts (1956-1931) and Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), who later formed the Heidelberg School.
The Art Gallery of South Australia have an outstanding painting by Conder, Holiday at Mentone, which imaginatively and wittily explores form, colour, and light.
In 1890, Conder’s wish to study in Paris was fulfilled by his benevolent uncle.1 Change and transformation was afoot. There were technological, social and economic changes, not unlike today. Steam drove trains and ships. Communications were affected by printing and the telegraph. Business became global. From the 1870s, London was the centre of the money markets in the financial world. At the same time, the art market changed and became international.2 Commercial galleries started with branches in Paris, Berlin and New York. Many of the new Plutocrats and Randlords, who aspired to the English way of life, went to live in London and created a demand for of Old Master paintings. A few bought ‘modern’ painters.
The art world was in flux. Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and uncategorised others were exploring light, colour, shapes and form. Nineteenth century scientific knowledge about the physics of light allowed the artist to experiment with visual perception and note the discrepancy between this and the constraints of the palette.3 Narrative painting of the Victorian period was challenged.
By 1893, Conder changed from an emerging young painter to an artist with an established style which was recognised and praised by influential critics who included him in lists of leading ‘modern’ artists. He was described as an imaginative ‘modern’ British artist who was renowned as a colourist.
In a recent article Professor Petra ten-Doesschaute Chu selected a label for Conder’s work, ‘borrowing a term from Oscar Wilde, who defined aesthetic eclecticism as ‘the true harmony of all really beautiful things irrespective of age or place, of school or manner’…[it] allowed for the random ‘collage style’ juxtaposition of beautiful elements.’ 4
The transformation and reception of Conder’s work during the next seventeen years is best understood through the reports of his contemporaries who included: fellow artists and friends; critics who are also fellow artists; and just critics. Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945) was a fellow student and artist in Paris. He was a lifelong friend who later became Director of the National Art School. With some vicissitudes, their friendship survived. William Rothenstein felt that nobody knew Conder as well as he. Sir John Rothenstein (1901-1920) (Keeper of the Tate Gallery, 1938-1964) recorded here his father’s view of Conder and his work when they first met:5
Rothenstein was struck rather by the personality of the large blond student than the quality of his work. His painting was then anaemic, self-consciously aesthetic, sugary, and sentimental. His drawing was even more feeble. Directly he came to Paris and his work began to develop rapidly…He and Rothenstein, with whom he lived for greater part of the year 1890…were among the few English art students who at this time associated intimately with their French confrères. One of those whom they saw most often during 1890 was Touluse Lautrec….In spite of his friendship with Lautrec and Bonnard, his admiration for Degas and Puvis de Chavannes, and intelligent interest in French contemporary painting, his own aesthetic outlook at first did not greatly change…when he first met Louis Anquetin all this was changed…[he] became the most potent influence in Conder’s life. [His work] now rapidly acquired the qualities which were to remain characteristic of it…his composition became steadily bolder and more intricate, his colour stronger and subtler….By 1893 the first phase of his painting was closed…
With this new imaginative phase [Commedia dell’Arte, Moliere and Balzac etc ] came much admiration…The Société Nationale des Beaux Artes elected him an associate member in 1893, and he exhibited there regularly.6
William Rothenstein drew attention to the significance of Conder’s oil paintings in Since Fifty Men and Memories, 1922-1938, ‘his later canvases show a bold conception and an energy to which his silk painting do not attain. It was his early oil painting which attracted Lautrec and Anquetin rather than his slighter fans, the fans which brought popularity to Conder in England…’7
Sir John Rothenstein read many letters from Conder to his father which have not yet been published.
Rothenstein described Conder’s increased success in the first years of the twentieth century. He distilled the essence of Conder’s skills thus, ‘Never had his extraordinary capacity for organising the most complicated and subtle poses without reference to life itself shown itself so powerfully. I can think of no other English artist who could, without a single note, without preparation of any sort, carry out large and intricate designs as Conder did. He was never a good draftsman, his sense of construction was vague and faulty, yet a terrific feeling for design and atmosphere enabled him to accomplish what he did’.8
William Rothenstein drew attention to his understanding of Conder’s talent in Men and Memories 1900-1902 and particularly to Conder’s oil paintings:
‘There were qualities of Conder’s mind and art which no one, I thought, understood as I did…
In some ways Conder was more adventurous than other painters; he was instinct with inventive powers and could put down a complicated composition with extraordinary ability, giving life and beauty to his figures. His sense of physical beauty of women, of the grace of their movements, of feminine radiance, was unique - in his period at least…His art was based partly on his sense of style, of gesture, of artificial comedy, in a word the comedy of Davenant, of Congreve, and of Watteau and Fragonard; and in large measure too, on his subtle observation of actual life. Each side of his nature helped the other. He had a great feeling for form…He is one of the rare lyrical painters.’ 9
Dugald Stuart MacColl (1859-1948), the most influential art critic of the period, wrote for the Spectator (1890-1896) and the Saturday Review (1896-1906) and other publications before his appointment as Keeper of the Tate Gallery (1906-1910) and later the Wallace Collection (1911-1924).10
In the Spectator 24 June 1893, MacColl recommended a visit to the Goupil Gallery to see ‘several pictures by Mr Charles Conder, whose work at the Champs de Mars has been so remarkable these last two years for the beauty of its colour and poetry of its feeling’.
Later the same year, on 23 December in the Spectator, MacColl reviewed the Winter Exhibitions. At the New English Art Club he referred to Conder; ‘Mr Conder’s work is artistic in the sense that it is composed and subdued to accord with a scheme and sentiment. There are no loose ends, no gossip about things; it is an attempt upon the music of nature.’
The New England Art Club is described here in the Spectator, April 27, 1895, p.579: ‘Happily, all the old fountains of art are capable of breaking out afresh, and the New English Art Club includes, in Mr Charles Conder, a poet of rare quality’.
MacColl moved to the Saturday Review and on 10 June 1899, referred to panels exhibited in London which were commissioned by Mr Siegfried Bing for his Paris Art Nouveau exhibition, when he reviewed Conder’s work, ‘here is the man who can put three colours together so that they are Spring to the eyes, and set his marionettes in strange countries that are like a regret, a desire, the scent of a flower, the pain of a song.’
MacColl reviewed an exhibition in 1910, Twenty Years of British Art at the Whitechapel Gallery. He wrote about his concern that modern English artists were not represented in official collections. However, there were two collections which did have representative modern works, one in Dublin and the other in Johannesburg which included ‘… Courbet, Puvis de Chavannes, Manet, Jongkind, Monet, the Belgian Stevens, Monticelli…and alongside of them the Englishmen who are the right company for such masters. Conder, one of the real talents of our period…; Steer, the man who stands in our time for the art of Turner and Constable…; John, and a number of younger men,…have their rightful place…The English School has been the name for sporadic genius in the past, it is more descriptive now as a title than ever before’. 11
Soon after Conder’s death in 1910, Frank Gibson wrote Charles Conder: his Life and Work. There was an unsigned review (probably MacColl) in the Spectator from December 13, 1913, p.23. The reviewer described here Conder’s pictures more broadly:
This volume forms a worthy tribute to an exceptional talent. Conder took little heed of the actual world, but created one of his own, which he delighted to paint. This world was in truth the world of the stage, not a scene from the audience, but a country constructed out of theatrical properties. But what made it new and original was that it was always perfect in artistic taste. With an unerring instinct Conder saw that to people this land with actual human beings would be absurd. He therefore constructed people on the same principle as the pasteboard trees and buildings which have no substance, and out of these strange materials he evolved fantasies of exquisite grace. But the crowning gift of this artist was his sense of colour; in this he was never at fault, and with unerring instinct he could always command effects that as beautiful as they were subtle…It is early to talk of immortality, but if Conder lives it will be in virtue of his gifts as a colourist.12
T. Martin Wood, in The Studio, reviewed a commission from an important patron, Sir Edmund Davis.
The selection of no other artist to fill these panels could have been so successful as that of Mr Conder…by his panels the eye is engaged, the intelligence aroused, but only to a point; a story is told, a drama is enacted in them which is never finished. There is a purpose about the actions of the figure which evades us, and this elusiveness gives us rest….we are not called upon to look into our memory for history, we are not put out of court in the matter of subject by ignorance of their legend, we are not teased with symbolism….his methods are charmingly indefinite in their refinements of escaping tone…in their delicate colour. Beauty with him in those panels is light and decadent; they are full of fancy, crowded with images, pictures and memories of faded things. Mr Conder gives to us an escape into the refinement of pleasure of an hour departed. This is the sentiment of his designs; it is part of the delicate manner of his expression, and it lies behind the remarkable colour that early brought him to fame.13