Charles Conder’s bohemian days

Conder created an Arcadia peopled by dreamy, capricious figures who lead lives of luxurious idleness. They wander at dusk on the margins of tranquil, lapis lazuli seas, of lakes cerulean under the midday haze, or dally in the shade of richly foliaged trees. Scented breezes may stir their garments, but they know neither wind nor rain. There is no harshness or violence among these privileged beings, for those who dwell in Arcadia do not suffer from privation or ambition. But there is a wistfulness, sometimes, in their glances; their laughter ceases, they seem to grow weary of their own perfection, of being without past of future. They are touched by a nostalgia for the world of real men and women, of struggle and tragedy. Such moments pass; their eyes are caught again by a seductive smile, the notes of a flute or mandolin are wafted from across the water, and their faces grow tender from the contemplation of unending beauty.

Sir John Rothenstein. (1938)

Spring by the Sea

In February 1905 the artist Charles Conder and his wife Stella Maris invited their friends to a fancy dress party at their home in Cheyne Walk.

From Conder's House plate 52

The invitations might have looked like this one Conder created for another costume party

Invitation Card plate 72

Note that phrase “disguise imperative”. Conder had created a room for Edmund and Mary Davis at their house in North Kensington decorated with water colours on silk which was featured in the Studio magazine in the same year. The writer Arthur Symons recalled the “most wonderful Fancy Dress Ball the Conders gave.”

John Rothenstein had this to say about the party:

One at least of the parties given at 91 Cheyne Walk was memorable enough to be talked of to this day. A the guests arrived at the house lit with many-coloured lanterns there was an air of tense exectancy. For weeks it had been rumoured that those most renowned for the ingenuity and magnificence of their fancy dress were planning to outdo themselves. The highest expectations were fulfilled. Marie Tempest came as Peg Woffington, the Broness de Meyer as Hamlet, Mr and Mrs Edmund Davis as a pair of poodles, Mrs Lawson as as Dutch boy, and Mrs Florence Humphrey as a Conder lady. The fan which Conder offered as prize to the wearer of the dress judged the most beautiful was won by Madame Errazuiz, a dazzling South American. This party … represented the Conder’s social apotheosis.

Conder had married Stella, a wealthy Canadian widow, in 1901 and had subsequently moved in an elevated social and artistic circle.

The masquerade 48

I first came across Conder’s name when I saw this picture reproduced in a book.

La Morte Amoreuse p68

La Morte Amoreuse – The Dead Woman in love. An enigmatic picture with an intriguing title. As I looked at more of his pictures they seemed to have the same slightly macabre quality.

The shadow p56

The Spectre, also referred to as The Shadow.

Conder belongs to the same fin de siecle world as Aubrey Beardsley, who was a friend of his. Conder contributed to the Yellow Book and to Savoy magazine. Some of his work resembles Beardsley.

A fairy prince plate 8

“A fairy prince” could easily have come out of a decadent narrative like Beardsley’s Under the Hill.

A masque plate 7

Another masque. Along with Under the Hill I was taken back to the Picture of Dorian Gray, Pierre Louys’s novel Aphrodite, Flaubert’s Salammbo, the stories of Lord Dunsany, J K Huymans’ A Rebours (Against nature). You could have had a lot of quoted passages laid before you from my immersement in fantastic literature in the 70s. This was before fantasy trilogies clogged the bookshops and once you’d read your Mervyn Peake, Fritz Leiber, Robert E Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, to name a few, you had to dig deeper to find that weird frisson.

Before he washed up in Chelsea as the husband of a rich woman, there had quite a quite different side to Conder. When he was 16 years old he had been sent to Australia by his father partly to prevent him becoming an artist. It didn’t work of course and Australia actually provided him with inspiration and the company of other artists. A large part of his work features bright skies and open spaces . He returned to Europe in 1890 but remained to many an Australian artist like our friend Mortimer Menpes.

Charles Conder Rickett's Point

Rickett’s Point.

A holiday at Mentone

A holiday in Mentone. (The Australian one, obviously)

Silver sands.

On the seashore.

He combined sun, sand and a mythological air in this picture.

Charles Conder Hot Wind

Hot wind.

Conder’s relaxed life in Cheyne Walk did not last very long. He died in 1909 aged only 41, of tertiary syphillis, something his earlier biographers hint at without actually saying. Stella did not survive him by long. She died of burns after falling asleep while smoking in 1912.

Conder Stella and Florence H

Conder and Stella with their friend Florence Humphrey.

If like me you’ve never come across Conder before, there’s plenty out there to see online and even in UK galleries. One or two things in Australia too if you’re down that way. I’ve found it fascinating to go from one image to an artist’s whole life and work, especially after finding out his Chelsea connection. There’s much more  you could say but as I’m not really an art historian I’ll just end the post with another picture.

The pink dress.

Postscript

Some of the images came from Charles Conder: his life and work (Bodley Head 1914) by Frank Gibson. I also used  The life and death of Conder (Dent 1938) by Sir John Rothenstein.

There are quite a few Conder pictures on the BBC Your Paintings website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/search/painted_by/charles-conder_artists

You can also see paintings in our collection there: http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/galleries/locations/kensington-central-library-6950

I can also recommend  Ann Galbally’s excellent biography Charles Conder: the last Bohemian (Melbourne University Press 2003).

I went to see an exhibition by another Chelsea riverside artist a couple of nights ago, Hugh Krall. If you’re in Chelsea you should have a look. More details here.


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