Barry Humphries

An Australian in Lautrec’s Paris

The remarkable career of Charles Conder

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The remarkable career of Charles Conder

At the small but distinguished exhibition at the Courtauld Institute — Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril (until 18 September) — we glimpse many of the habitués of the Moulin Rouge with the exception of Charles Conder. A marginal figure in at least four works by Lautrec, he is also the subject of a fine portrait drawing at the Art Gallery of Aberdeen. Conder was born in London in 1868 and as a child went to Australia with his parents. He showed an early aptitude for art and at the age of 15 was employed as an illustrator for the Sydney Morning Herald.

In the next few years, with another group of Australian painters including Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, he painted a number of plein air works of extraordinary preciosity which are landmarks of Australian impressionism. The group became known as the ‘Heidelberg School’ after what was then a rural Melbourne suburb and a favourite haunt of artists.

In 1889, Conder sailed for England and went to Paris the following year to study at the Académie Julian where he met William Rothenstein. They shared a studio in Montmartre near the boulevard Clichy, and soon the young artists — the rather correct Rothenstein and the already dissolute Conder — were on terms of friendship with Lautrec, Louis Anquetin and Bonnard. Conder is the only Australian artist of his generation with legitimate and deep ties to his contemporaries in Europe.

In the bohemia of Paris in the last decade of the 19th century, Conder, a boy from the bush, had discovered his artistic milieu. Conder regularly visited the open air concert at the Moulin and painted many of the artistes, including Jane Avril and La Goulue. In his memoirs Rothenstein wrote: ‘Conder saw in the Moulin and its dancers a glowing, shimmering dream of Arabian nights. Lautrec’s unpitying eyes noted only sinister figures...of degenerate and waster.’

Always a petit-maître, Conder nevertheless possessed an original and poetic vision. He was a poor draftsman but an exceptional colourist, and sometimes his style and that of Lautrec converged so that a small painting of the ‘Rat Mort’ (one of Montmartre’s older cafés and a lesbian hangout) from 1892 was so stylistically similar to the art of Lautrec it was twice catalogued as work by the French master.

Lautrec led the already susceptible Conder along dark and mysterious paths, and together they attended executions by guillotine and surgical operations, which it seems, in the Paris of that epoch, permitted a select audience of voyeurs. In the words of Rothenstein’s son John, Lautrec ‘opened up new vistas of depravity’ for Conder, who was already syphilitic from an infection contracted in Melbourne from a landlady to whom he owed rent.

When Conder returned to London it was not long before his artistic gifts and dandyish charm attracted the attention of a few fellow spirits of the Nineties, including the poet and critic Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, Max Beerbohm and Oscar Wilde. Beardsley, the great draftsman of his age as Conder was the colourist, had his reservations and Walter Sickert avoided him. ‘I don’t drink and I am a snob,’ he said, seeing Conder in Dieppe in disreputable female company. Wilde owned one of Conder’s early fans for which he later became celebrated. ‘Dear Conder!’ exclaimed Oscar. ‘With what exquisite subtlety he goes about persuading someone to give him 100 francs for a fan, for which he was fully prepared to pay 200!’

As an ‘extra’ in Lautrec’s paintings of 1892, like a handsome, blond-haired flâneur, Conder sits in his slightly out-of-date evening finery, usually with a woman and diffusing an air of detachment. This was at a time when his attraction to women was legendary, though he was far from fastidious in choosing a companion for the night. John Rothenstein told me that, according to his father, Conder could have intimate relations with any woman, however old or ugly.

It was at Lautrec’s suggestion that Conder and Rothenstein had their first exhibition at the gallery of Père Thomas which was favourably noticed in the Figaro, and they were praised by Degas and Pissarro. But Conder was beginning to have bouts of illness that laid him up for long periods of time. These were, of course, symptoms of his malady, which would finally bring him insanity and death in 1909.

Since I was a schoolboy in Melbourne and bought my first Conder lithograph that depicted, had I known it then, a lesbian boudoir out of Balzac, I have always been interested in the artist’s life and brief career. He expressed, more than any other English painter, the hot-house atmosphere of the decadence. However, as the Nineties wore on, Conder’s inspiration grew fitful and enervated, though there were inspired intervals and, at his best, he was the equal of Whistler. Periodically, his chronic illness struck him down and he died insane at the Holloway Sanatorium at Virginia Water in 1909 at the age of 38. It was a career that spanned little more than 15 years, but towards the end of his life Conder did two unforeseeable things: he married and became briefly fashionable. He outlived Lautrec, Dowson, Beardsley, Lionel Johnson, Francis Thompson and Oscar Wilde, but by the end of the first world war he was all but forgotten.

In my years as a Conder collector I had often speculated that there might still exist a record of Conder’s last years at Virginia Water, but I dismissed the idea as impossible and that records of his death had disappeared as irrevocably as had his grave, at the little churchyard in Virginia Water. In 1948, the Royal Holloway Hospital was transferred to the NHS and for the next 12 years it became derelict, pillaged and vandalised.

A couple of years ago, to my amazement, I received a letter from a Spanish antique dealer offering me Conder’s medical records. These had survived in a heavy calf-bound volume, badly scuffed. The book had turned up at a street market in a suburb of Barcelona and had serendipitously being washed up, like precious flotsam, at my feet! It is a tragic record of the decline and death of Lautrec’s friend and subject, and one of the most exquisite talents of his day. There is an entry shortly before the end which reads:

‘Patient is well occupied; his pictures still show considerable merit.’

© Barry Humphries