Charles Edward Conder, or 'K' as he was known to his friends, was the third of five children of James Conder, railway engineer, and his first wife, Mary Ann, nee Ayres. He was born on 24 October 1868, at his parents' home, 'Holly Cottage', Finsbury Road, Tottenham, Middlesex, England.
In September 1870, he travelled with his parents to India, where his mother died of tuberculosis on 14 May 1873. After her death, Charles and his brother James were sent back to England, where Charles attended a boarding school in Eastbourne from 1877 to 1883.
After the death of his brother, James, Charles was sent overseas to his uncle, William Jacomb Conder, a surveyor in the New South Wales Lands Department, who lived in Sydney, Australia. His banishment to Australia was organized by his very religious, non-artistic father, as a measure to dissuade Charles from becoming an artist. He had begun to show a keen interest in art, but before this interest could grow, he suffered the same fate as Walter Withers, and found himself on a boat heading for Australia.
Conder left England for Australia aboard the S.S.Windsor Castle on 24 March 1884, and arrived in Sydney on 13 June 1884. On his arrival in Sydney, his uncle arranged survey work for him with surveyor, Joseph Brooks. Conder worked with his survey party up until early 1886, and visited many country areas of New South Wales. His work took him from Homebush to sites along the Hawkesbury and Shoalhaven Rivers, as well as to areas of the Blue Mountains.
On 14 January 1886, Conder was elected a member of the Art Society of New South Wales (ASNSW), and attended the Society's, Saturday afternoon art classes under A.J.Daplyn. He won a three-guinea prize at this time, for the best painting from nature. Early in 1887, he joined Gibbs, Shallard & Co.'s Illustrated Sydney News as an illustrator, and a number of his illustrations appeared in this publication between 15 April 1887 and 27 September 1888.
A boost to his artistic career came in 1888, with the sale to the Art Gallery of New South Wales of his work 'Departure of the Orient'. During 1888, he attended the evening sketch club under Julian Ashton at the ASNSW, and in Sydney met with Tom Roberts, who was visiting Sydney between 19 March and 17 April 1888. He painted with Roberts at Coogee, and later painted at Bronte Beach and Double Bay. Around this time, Conder met the artist, Girolamo Nerli, and was greatly impressed and many consider influenced, by his impressionistic works.
In July and August 1888, Conder joined Julian Ashton's painting group, which included the artists Mahoney, Minns and Fullwood, painting at Griffiths Farm, Richmond and along the Hawkesbury River. Here he produced a number of his impressionistic 'blossom' works. He painted at Botany and Randwick in September 1888, and on 13 October, departed Sydney, and sailed for Melbourne aboard the Burrumbeet.
On his arrival in Melbourne, he initially shared Tom Roberts' studio in Grosvenor Chambers, Collins Street East, Melbourne, and soon after painted 'Holiday at Mentone'. In November 1888, he joined Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin and Louis Abrahams at the Box Hill Artists' Camp, and here produced another of his 'blossom' works, 'Orchard at Box Hill'.
During 1889, Conder enrolled in the School of Design, National Gallery of Victoria, where his instructor and Master of the School, was Frederick McCubbin. From May 1889 until 26 April 1890, Conder joined Roberts and Streeton, painting at the old farmhouse on the Eaglemont Estate owned by Charles Davies. On 21 July 1889, he painted Roberts and Streeton in the interior of this old farmhouse, in his work 'Impressionists' Camp', 1889, which he produced for showing in 'The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition' held on 17 August 1889 in Buxton's Gallery. In all, Conder showed 46 works in this exhibition.
Conder was a major driving force behind the '9 by 5' exhibition and helped by illustrating the exhibition catalogue cover in an art nouveau style and decorating Buxton's Gallery with silks, in order to create an atmosphere of the cult of 'Japonais'.
While living at Eaglemont, Conder produced several major landscape works, including , 1890, and 'Under a Southern Sun', 1890, which is the companion work to Arthur Streeton's 'A Selector's hut: Whelan on the log', 1890. Early in 1890, Conder also produced a number of important seascape works, and these included 'Rickett's Point', 1890 and 'Sandringham', 1890.
On 26 April 1890, Conder left Melbourne aboard the Austral bound for Europe. He left ship at Naples and travelled via Rome and Florence to Paris, where he arrived on 6 June. He enrolled at the Academie Julian under Benjamin Constant and Jules Lefebvre, and met in Paris, Australian artist, John Longstaff.
In 1891, he also studied at Fernand Cormon's atelier, and became a friend of William Rothenstein. He travelled to Normandy and Dieppe, and late in the year fell very ill. In 1892, Toulouse-Lautrec painted his portrait, and this work now hangs in the Aberdeen Art Gallery. Over the next two years, Conder made several more trips to Normandy and Dieppe. In Paris, he commenced painting works on silk, and today his silk works, many of them fan-shaped, are highly sought after.
Late in 1894, he travelled to England and settled at 44 Glebe Place, Chelsea. He again visited Dieppe in July 1895, and at this time, several of his illustrations appeared in the Yellow Book.
The next five years of his life was a procession of cross-channel visits, from Chelsea to Paris to London to Dieppe. He often suffered from poor health, and in 1897, suffered an attack of delirium tremens. Although in poor health, he continued with his art. In 1899, he studied lithography, and in 1900, was elected a member of the New English Art Club. On 5 December 1901, he married the socialite and widow, Mrs Stella Maris Belford nee MacAdams at the British Embassy in Paris. The marriage gave him considerable financial security, and many important social contacts. In 1902, the couple moved to Belgravia, London, where they had many visitors, including regular visits by Arthur Streeton.
In the spring of 1903, Conder briefly visited Venice, and late in the year, painted at Brighton, England. He spent much of the rest of his life in England. Due to his illness, he seldom travelled far or for lengthy periods. He visited Cornwall in 1905, where he produced several coastal works, and also briefly visited France and Spain.
In May 1906, he fell ill with paralysis, and spent much of the rest of the year convalescing in various sanatoriums. Late in the year, he ceased painting, and in 1907, his health deteriorated further, and his illness was declared incurable.
He spent 1908 in a sanatorium, and on 9 February 1909, Conder died at Holloway Sanatorium, Virginia Water, Windsor, England of general paralysis of the insane. By 1913, only four years after his death, Charles Conder was being acclaimed a Modern Master by many of the art world of France and England, including Degas and Pissarro. Frederick McCubbin on reading this in Melbourne, wrote to Tom Roberts in London in September 1913, and noted 'I see Conder quoted as a very great Modern Master. And fancy being with us in out of the way Melbourne. Both Holmes (Charles John Holmes) and Ricketts speak very highly of Charles. Well I don't see any successors to the old group. We have some clever young people, but personality is rare.'
Left: Arthur Streeton
- Above Us The Great Grave Sky, 1890