1982. An estate agent’s brochure announces the sale of a large property in North Kensington just off Holland Park Avenue. The brochure speaks of a room with “polished satinwood panels painted in the style of Charles Conder”. The artist seemed of less interest to the writer of the brochure than the fact that the club had been used in the filming of the TV series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (which we were all glued at the time but of which I now recall nothing) The asking price, if you’re interested was £650,000. (The picture below is more of a side view.)
The Knights of St Columba were selling their London club house. The Knights were a Catholic fraternal organisation for men. A KSC brochure from 1971 describes the facilities for members. Many bedrooms, a chapel, rooms for conferences and meetings, a bar
The brochure is fairly clear that one of the rooms was called the Conder room – presumably because the paintings in it were by Conder.
That section of wooden paneling in the centre of the picture is what you should be looking at, although it’s impossible to make out much detail.
Why the estate agents were cautious in their assessment is not clear. We are quite sure that Conder did decorate a room for the then owner of the house, a wealthy art collector and patron named Edmund Davis who was born in Australia and made a fortune in mining in southern Africa.
You can see an invitation to a fancy dress ball at the house in my previous post on Conder. Davis had commissioned the architect F W Marshall to create an arts and crafts house at 11-13 Lansdowne Road in 1896. The house was covered by the Architectural Review in 1914.
The rooms are cool and austere in these pictures which look as if they belong to a palace rather than a large Victorian town house.
Even the roof has an exotic look, like a hidden temple.
Below is the Conder room. You can make out a few more of Conder’s pictures and get a better sense of the size of the space.
Another angle on the room matches the picture from the 1971 brochure although the comparison does not favour the later version.
This is described as a recess in the Conder room in the 1914 article.
I’ve spent a little while getting us to this point partly because the research was interesting in itself but also because I wanted to ground Conder’s pictures in historical reality. Now we have now reached what I thought of as the substance of this post and we can have a look at several of Conder’s watercolours painted on silk. Fortunately the Studio magazine had published an appreciation of Conder’s paintings in 1905 by Martin Wood. The photographs are monochrome but they still give a strong sense of Conder’s artistic vision
Wood says: “the eye is engaged, the intelligence is 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 figures which evades us, an anecdote in each of the panels that escapes us and this elusiveness gives us rest – the restfulness which is to be demanded of perfect decoration.” You have to leave the ordinary world of buildings and rooms behind and follow the logic of the costume parties he attended to enter into Conder’s imaginary places which are part ancient Greece, part 18th century France.
The pictures are all set out of doors in some landscaped open place, part garden, part temple, part theatre, where clothed and naked people disport themselves in a carefree fashion, sitting, posing or engaged in enigmatic actions.
I’ve looked around for a passage from the fantastic literature of the early 20th century to complement Conder’s pictures and I’ve picked out a piece from an anthology of the stories of Lord Dunsany who was most famous as a dramatist but who also wrote curious short stories set in an invented world. They were reprinted in the post-Tolkien fantasy boom of the 1970s and fitted in well with the interest in fin de siecle decadent art and literature. Dunsany was highly influenced by Belasco’s play the Darling of the Gods, an oriental fantasy which we last encountered in a post about another of our favourite London artists, Yoshio Markino, although Conder’s images are far from Markino’s urban fantasies.
The two artists do share a certain indistinctness which adds to the unworldly tone. Some of Conder’s pictures were painted using the grisaille technique, a kind of monochrome water colour, so we don’t lose that much from seeing the pictures in black and white.
So I came down through the wood to the bank of the Yann and found, as had been prophesied, the ship Bird of the River about to loose her cable.
The captain sat cross-legged on the white deck with his scimitar lying beside him in its jewelled scabbard, and the sailors toiled to spread the nimble sails to bring the ship into the central stream of Yann, and all the while sang ancient soothing songs. And the winds of the evening descending cool from the snowfields of some mountainous abode of distant gods came suddenly, like glad tidings to an anxious city, into the wing-like sails.
From Idle days on the Yann, a story which is more middle eastern / oriental than classical but it remains one of my favourites one Dunsany’s. The narrator is a man from London who enters the land of dreams via a shop in Go-by Street, just off the Strand. Conder’s pictures also seem like entrances to another world.
The pleasure seekers have come indoors and put their clothes on as the day grows chilly.
Like Dunsany’s dreamer you can come back into the world and perhaps find many years have passed. Here is the house in a Planning photograph from the 1990s when presumably it had been restored to its constituent parts. I can’t tell you what became of the Conder pictures. Perhaps someone knows.
Edmund Davis was a well known figure in the art world in his lifetime, and a friend of far more famous artists than Conder – Frank Brangwyn (who also painted wall panels at Lansdowne Road for him), Charles Ricketts, Edmund Dulac (who lived in one of Davis’s properties in Ladbroke Road). He was knighted in 1927. At his country house Chilham Castle he had old masters and many works by August Rodin. (There was an enclosed swimming pool surrounded by Rodin sculptures). There was a significant art theft there in 1938, a year before Davis’s death. Oddly, it was hard to find out a great deal of information about him. In an excellent article in Apollo in 1980 Simon Reynolds wrote: “his name is forgotten in every field of endeavor” His wife Mary who also worked in water colours on silk influenced by Conder died three years after him.
As the two of them have played a bigger role in this post than I anticipated here is a picture by Edmund Dulac depicting them dancing at a musical soiree.
This picture is the end of this post but the starting point for another one in the near future.
I’m finishing this off just after the two minutes silence for Remembrance Day. It’s a good moment to remind anyone who is interested about our local WW1 website at http://www.kcworldwar1.org.uk .
On a less serious note for those of you who like such things the London History Festival is back again, starting next week. See our website for details.
And on an even less serious note I have been reading Catie Disabato’s recent novel the Ghost Network which is a Pynchonesque narrative about a disappearing pop star and the Chicago transport network. If anyone else is reading it I draw your attention to page 130. (Near the bottom of the page – how did she know?)