Charles Conder

England, Australia 1868–1909
Conder arrived in Australia as a teenager in 1884, helping his uncle in survey camps in rural NSW and later taking evening drawing lessons under Julian Ashton at the Art Society. In October 1888, he moved to Melbourne to join Tom Roberts and the circle of painters working there. Conder returned to Europe in 1890, where he became fully involved with Aestheticism and mixed with leading artists and writers of the day, including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley.

Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay 1888

Conder painted this work from an upstairs room at the First and Last Hotel, which used to stand on the corner of Albert and Phillip streets in Sydney. The expressive brushwork is reminiscent of Tom Roberts, while the sombre palette reveals the influence of James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

When it was displayed in the 1888 Art Society exhibition, the painting – with its high viewpoint and impressionist approach to atmosphere and form – provided a distinctly modern view of Sydney as a rapidly urbanising city. On the right, you can see part of the original convict-built wall that gave Circular Quay its name – a symbol for a colony on the cusp of modernity and nationhood.

People and places

Circular Quay was built on the site of Australia’s first colonial settlement, where the First Fleet came ashore at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson on 26 January 1788 – an area known as Warrang by its Aboriginal owners, the Cadigal people.

Started in 1837 and completed in 1844, the quay was built by convicts from sandstone blocks on what had been tidal mudflats. The structure was known as Semi-circular Quay until the 1850s when the gap in the stonework caused by the Tank Stream was closed. Although it’s no longer the centre for commercial shipping that it once was, its wharves remain the main part of Sydney’s ferry network and a vibrant pedestrian area.

Related material

This photo from the 1880s–90s in the Gallery collection shows a similar view of Circular Quay.