The wreck 1889 signed and inscribed 'THE WRECK / Charles Conder' lower left oil on wood panel 19.5 x 33.0cm (7 11/16 x 13in).
PROVENANCE The collection of the artist K. Lotheringer (whose family is believed to have obtained the painting from the artist) By descent Landau Collection, Sydney Fine Australian Paintings, Sotheby's, Melbourne, 21 August 1995, lot 54 (illus.) The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1995
EXHIBITED Charles Conder 1868-1909, touring exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 9 August - 4 September 1966; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 9 November - 4 December 1966, cat. no. 21 Charles Conder retrospective, touring exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 14 June - 17 August 2003; Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 5 September - 9 November 2003; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 21 November 2003 - 26 January 2004, cat. no. 18 Sea of Dreams; The lure of Port Phillip Bay 1830-1914, Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Mornington, 7 December 2011 - 19 February 2012
LITERATURE Alan McCulloch, The Golden Age of Australian painting: Impressionism and the Heidelberg School, Lansdowne, Melbourne, 1969, pl. 31A (illus.) James Gleeson, Impressionist Painters 18811930, Lansdowne, Melbourne, 1971, pl. 51 (illus.) Ursula Hoff, Charles Conder, Lansdowne, Melbourne, 1972, p. 102, pl. 16 (illus.) Ann Galbally and Barry Pearce, Charles Conder, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2003, pp. 29, 31, 88-9 (illus.), 192-3
Charles Conder's dramatic oil study The wreck was based on an actual collision that occurred in Hobson's Bay, at the Powder anchorage off Cape Gellibrand on 23 June 1889, between the masted Cape Verde and the ironclad Iolanthe. Its striking high horizon line was a convention often used by 19th century marine artists in order to maximize the area available for painting ships. 1 In The wreck Charles Conder has dramatically inverted this naval convention. Here the sea is left an empty space and only the distant silhouettes of two ships can be seen on the horizon line, witnessed by a group of horrified bystanders clustered on the edge of an otherwise empty pier in the foreground.
Conder's oil defies classification. Not known to have been exhibited during his lifetime, The wreck seems to have been painted on a whim. Ultimately stemming from the black and white work he produced for the illustrated press in Sydney and, intermittently, in Melbourne, it reveals his love of incident. For he did not actually witness the sensational collision which occurred in Hobson's Bay. But he did see its aftermath when he went to collect his cousin Maggie and her parents from the P&O liner RMS Carthage berthed at the busy Station Pier, Port Melbourne. They had embarked in Sydney and were making a brief visit to Melbourne before continuing on to Bombay. 2
Conder had been in Melbourne since October 1888. By now he was well established, sharing a studio in town in winter and painting en plein air at Heidelberg in the summer months with new friends Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton. The shipping collision in Hobson's Bay that caused such a sensation in Melbourne occurred on the evening prior to Conder's meeting his relatives. By the time he arrived there was little for he or the crowds of interested Melbournians to see. The wreckage of the masted Cape Verde lay beneath twenty-eight feet of water and the ironclad Iolanthe, which had struck her on the port side, had been towed away for repairs. 3
So although he had seen the site, Conder had to reconstruct the event. The suggestion that he later went to the St Kilda pier to view the site 4 must be discounted as it would have been impossible to see the boats against the horizon line where the sun has just set from this angle and distance. Cape Gellibrand is northwest of St Kilda rather than due west. Station Pier however offers the appropriate visual orientation.
The vividness of the spectacular sunset suggests that this was something the artist had witnessed. And although he may have paid little attention to the actual physical facts of the disaster, in his handling of light and colour Conder shows a rare sensitivity to place and meteorological conditions. The collision had occurred at dusk in stormy conditions two days after the winter solstice. The sun was now at its lowest altitude above the horizon. Due to Melbourne's latitudinal proximity to the South Pole winter lighting effects there, especially at sunset, can be quite unusual. Deploying a rich palette of golden yellows, ultramarines and a dusky pink offset by the dark umbers of the two ships and the pier, Conder has made the sunset as much an event as the actual collision.
Silhouetted against a golden afterglow the menacing, steam-puffing ironclad has already struck the hapless Cape Verde. She is pictured breaking up, sails unfurling, her stern already beneath the water. The stricken and the aggressor are seemingly alone on the horizon line with just a few strokes suggesting there might be other vessels a tug perhaps? at a distance. But here Conder is taking a total artistic liberty: at the time Hobson's Bay was crowded with moored ships and this was, indeed, the reason for the collision.
As the viewer looks up towards the collision, so too do a group of concerned figures on the edge of an otherwise deserted pier. This too is highly unlikely given that this was Station Pier, Melbourne's only passenger terminal since its opening in September 1854, and would normally have been crowded with berthed ships and busy attendants. It is late in the day and the gas lamp has already been lit. The anguish of the small group of witnesses is suggested by their tight grouping and raised arms. A slightly supernatural white light flashes across the vast empty spaces of the sea and pier setting a mood of tragedy. Conder adds to this by bleeding ultramarine and touches of burnt sienna down the picture plane beneath the boats, implying a watery grave for the stricken Cape Verde. Burnt umber darkens the bottom edge of the pier adding a further downward impulsion. Conder uses colour to hold in tension the viewer's desire to read the scene in an upward direction and the descending darker areas of paint that convey the underlying meaning of the painting.
Delicately painted with a limited palette on a wooden panel - the surface of choice for both Conder and Streeton at this time - The wreck is a masterly study of high drama cleverly worked with minimal means.
Dr Ann Galbally
1 See Arthur V. Gregory's The Victorian Fleet of 1888 where a large expanse of lightly picked out waves provides the backdrop for a considerable line up of ships. Collection: Royal Historical Society of Victoria ART-0317001 2 As a sixteen-year-old Conder had been sent from England to New South Wales to work as an apprentice surveyor under the supervision of his uncle William Jacomb Conder. He got on well with his uncle and especially with his cousin Margaret Emma known as 'Maggie". Although Conder proved a disappointment as a surveyor his relationship with the family remained warm and his uncle purchased his first exhibited work, Low Tide, Hawkesbury River. Their stopover in Melbourne was a very happy time for Conder. His uncle died in Sydney the following year. See Galbally, Ann Charles Conder The Last Bohemian MUP 2003 pp. 10-11; 43-44. 3 For an account of the collision see The Leader, 29 June 1889, p. 3 4 Hoff, U, Charles Conder, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne 1972, Ch. 3, FN 18