In 1895 Max Beerbohm, caricaturist, humourist and fin-de-siècle character, met the painter Charles Conder for the first time. Conder was then 27, flitting between London and Paris as part of a coterie that included Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and just beginning to make a reputation as an artist. What struck Beerbohm, however, was that he didn’t encounter someone vibrant with the expectation of unfolding possibilities but “a sick man, immersed in dreams, unable to look realities in the face”.
Conder (1868-1909) was indeed a doomed man, suffering from rheumatism, gout, insomnia and the effects of syphilis and absinthe. He had hard-living under his belt and plenty more to come. Dissipation came easily to him and he had reasons for averting his gaze from reality. Conder personified the louche aestheticism of the “Yellow Nineties”, execrating “society rubbish” with its “at homes – dinners or conversaziones or dancing” but stirring instead to café life and “the jabber of my friends, the click of the billiard balls, the smell of heliotrope”.
His paintings, however, are the anti-thesis of decadent. As a reviewer noted in 1893, Conder’s landscapes “alone held that equilibrium between observation, feeling, composition of form and colour which made ‘the beautiful picture’”. He was an artist who “reduced nature to the music of colours and evoked perfumed and poetic moods” and did so through a mixture of modish influences – Whistler and impressionism, japonisme and art nouveau.
[See also: The ruin-strewn landscapes of Hubert Robert]
This heady stuff had unlikely roots. Conder was born at Tottenham, north London, but on the death of his mother accompanied his engineer father to India, returned to England for schooling and then, at 16, was sent to his uncle in Australia to train as a surveyor for the colonial civil service. His father, an unbending man, forbade him from becoming a painter, but after two years surveying, Conder defied him and took a job as a lithographic printer in Sydney, enrolled in art school classes and rented a studio.
Sometime between 1887 and 1888 he met Tom Roberts, an Anglo-Australian painter who had returned from Europe full of fascination for the impressionists’ plein-air style and for Whistler. He encouraged Conder to join him and a group of other painters at the semi-permanent artist camp at the Mount Eagle Homestead at Heidelberg near Melbourne. The Heidelberg School painters deliberately shaped themselves as Australian impressionists, painting the Southern Hemisphere landscape with a technique perfected by French artists by the Seine. Before the impecunious Conder could join them, however, he paid off his outstanding rent, at his landlady’s suggestion, in the form of sexual favours. He found himself debt-free but now infected with the syphilis that was never to leave him.
With his new friends, Conder exhibited at the 1889 “9 x 5 Impression Exhibition” – named for the cigar-box lids on which they painted – which announced the arrival of this new national school. Conder, however, was more interested in the motherlode and, thanks to a generous bachelor uncle, left Australia for Paris in 1890.
[See also: The endless vistas of Joachim Patinir]
Once there he threw himself into study with alacrity but the nightlife with greater enthusiasm. In the company of Toulouse-Lautrec he was a spectator at guillotinings and surgical operations (then open to the public), and a participant in brothel excursions. According to a fellow painter, William Rothenstein, brandy became “an hourly need” and then absinthe. “Nearly any woman, glorified by his imagination, became desirable. One amorous adventure followed another. There was a gargantuan flavour about them. With a woman or two he would disappear for a time. For days, sometimes even weeks.” Rothenstein’s son John said that Lautrec “opened up new vistas of depravity” for the weak-willed Conder.
This way of life came to an end in 1901 when he married a wealthy widow, Stella Maris Belford. The couple were devoted to one another, bought a house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, where Conder lived a settled life – exhibiting pictures, painting designs on silk for fans, dresses and decorative panels for aesthetic interiors.
This landscape, however, Apple Blossom at Dennemont, was painted in 1893 when Conder was in the grip of Paris. Now in the Ashmolean Museum, it shows nothing of his riotous life but simply an explosion of spring froth, life and colour along a lane by the Seine, 60 kilometres north-west of Paris. The pellucid light and freshness might recall Australia but these trees grow in the impressionist heartland.
The influence of Japanese art is clear, especially in the laden branch that reaches into the foreground. Two years earlier, Conder had exhibited blossom pictures inspired by the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and was fond of the line: “The bird of Time has but a little way to fly – and lo, the Bird is on the Wing.” Underneath the vernal fecundity is the real subject of the picture: the transience of life. The painting is too detailed to have been made entirely out of doors and, working on it in the studio, Conder had time enough to measure it against a sense of his own mortality. He knew his bird flew faster than most.
[See also: The meticulous paintings of Winifred Knights]
Nevertheless, the painting is joyous – a tone poem, filled with light, colour and scent. Conder was no heavy-handed allegorist and while the track in the picture might reflect the path of life, the tree its fleeting youth, then again they might simply be a track and a tree in a lung-filling scene.
Conder’s end, as he might have feared, was a distressing one: in 1907 he contracted a paralysing brain disease and spent the next two years in and out of sanatoria before dying of “general paresis of the insane” – the tertiary syphilis of his Sydney debt. Back in Australia he had painted Herrick’s Blossoms, a little picture inspired by the poet’s “Gather ye rosebuds…” If he thought then that the lines, “This same flower that smiles today/Tomorrow will be dying” applied to him then he was determined in his art, and the Dennemont picture in particular, not to spoil things for everyone else.
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special