Van Gogh’s London
Despite being unappreciated during in his own lifetime, Vincent van Gogh is now considered to be one of the most brilliant artists of the 19th century.
Named after both his grandfather and a brother who had sadly been still-born exactly a year before, Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on the 30th March 1853 in Groot-Zundert; a small village in the southern Netherlands.
As a child, Vincent was noted for his talent in both languages and drawing.
When he reached the age of 16, Vincent’s uncle, Cent helped the teenager secure employment with the art dealer, Goupil and Cie who were based in The Hague and had branches across Europe.
Van Gogh Comes to London
After a four year apprenticeship, the company posted the 20 year old Vincent to their London branch at 17 Southampton Street, Covent Garden in June 1873.
In 1875, whilst Van Gogh was still with the company, the dealership switched premises, moving to nearby Bedford Street, close to the junction with the Strand.
Upon receiving his new role, Vincent was full of energy and optimism and had high hopes for his new career.
Shortly before being sent to London, his mentor, Mr Tersteeg wrote to Vincent’s parents, happily informing them that their son was a popular young man whom both artists and buyers enjoyed working with.
Naturally, the first thing Vincent had to do upon arriving in London was to secure a roof over his head and in his first letter home he mentioned a problem which remains a bugbear for Londoners to his day; “Life here is very expensive…”
The location of Van Gogh’s first digs, where he stayed for two months, is unknown- although we do know that the young Dutchman lodged with two spinsters who kept parrots. No doubt memories of this period would have come to mind when he painted a parrot years later…
Also lodging in the house were three Germans, “Who really love music and play piano and sing, which makes the evenings very pleasant indeed.”
Vincent socialised with the German group but soon found it impossible to keep up due to their lavish spending habits!
During his first few weeks in England, Vincent travelled to Surrey to visit Box Hill, leading him to write, “The countryside here is magnificent.”
Although he could have made the trip by train, Vincent opted to go on foot… a journey which took him six hours.
In another early letter, Vincent also mentions his love of London’s green spaces; “One of the nicest things I’ve seen here is Rotten Row in Hyde Park, which is a long, broad avenue where hundreds of ladies and gentlemen go riding. In every part of the city there are splendid parks with a wealth of flowers, such as I’ve seen nowhere else.”
Van Gogh’s second home in the capital- and the building which today provides London’s most noted link with the artist- was at 87 Hackford Road, Stockwell (close to Brixton) where he moved in August 1873.
Thanks to the many letters he wrote to his younger brother, Theo, Vincent van Gogh’s time here is very well documented…and as we will soon see, it tells a sad story which has led to speculation that his time in London eventually came to have a detrimental impact on his mental health; the continuing poor state of which would come to plague the artist in later life.
Life in 1870s London
When he first secured lodgings at Hackford Road, Vincent couldn’t have been happier, writing to Theo, “Oh how I’d like to have you here, old chap, to see my new lodgings…I now have a room, as I’ve long been wishing…”
In the same letter, he also mentioned how he “Spent a Saturday rowing on the Thames with two Englishmen. It was glorious.”
“Things are going well for me here, I have a wonderful home and it’s a great pleasure for me to observe London and the English way of life and the English themselves, and I also have nature, art and poetry, and if that isn’t enough, what is?”
In the early 1870s, Stockwell was still a relatively quiet, genteel suburb and the young Vincent took great pleasure in exploring the surrounding flora and fauna.
“I walk here as much as I can,” he wrote to Theo; “Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better. Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see.”
Donning his specially purchased top hat (“You cannot be in London without one,” he told Theo), Vincent would walk to and from his Covent Garden workplace every day; a journey of some three miles in each direction; “I crossed Westminster Bridge every morning and evening and know what it looks like when the sun’s setting behind Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.”
On his evening return journey, Vincent would often pause to sketch various views of the Thames- although he was often frustrated in his efforts as he found the perspective tricky to grasp.
During his spare time, the young art-dealer delighted in exploring the city’s galleries and museums and was especially fond of the Royal Academy and Dulwich Gallery. He also visited the British Museum– where he signed the guest book on August 28th 1874.
As well as London’s attractions, Van Gogh also developed a taste for British art and literature; admiring the paintings of Gainsborough and Turner and the novels and poems of George Elliot, Charles Dickens (who had died just three years before Van Gogh’s arrival in England) and John Keats, of whom he wrote “He’s a favourite of the painters here, which is how I came to be reading him.”
He also became an avid reader of The Graphic, Punch and The London Illustrated News; magazines which documented news and topical issues with richly detailed illustrations.
The offices of the London Illustrated News were based at 198 the Strand; close to Vincent’s workplace and he would often pop in to pore over the proofs for the latest issue which were available for public view. He even toyed with the idea of becoming a magazine illustrator, but sadly this dream never came to fruition.
Van Gogh was particularly interested in illustrations depicting Victorian Britain’s social ills and he later went onto become an avid collector of the magazines he’d first encountered in London, from which he cut and collected over 1,000 images.
These clippings would be displayed around his studio to inspire and motivate the artist as he worked. “For me,” Van Gogh wrote, “The English draughtsmen are what Dickens is in the sphere of literature. Noble and healthy, and something one always comes back to.”
Of the many prints owned by Van Gogh, one in particular, snipped from an 1870 issue of The Graphic, depicted Charles Dickens’ empty seat; a melancholy illustration created shortly after the celebrated author died… and one which perhaps inspired Van Gogh’s own 1888 painting of a chair.
Another print which had an obvious impact on Van Gogh’s work was Gustave Dore’s depiction of convicts in Newgate Prison’s exercise yard, published in 1872’s London: a Pilgrimage.
Van Gogh created his own version of this grim scene in 1890 whilst being held at an asylum in Saint-Remy.
The Dream Dwindles
Vincent appeared happy and settled in his new life in London, writing in early 1874 that “I have a rich life here, ‘having nothing, yet possessing all things.’ Sometimes I start to believe that I’m gradually beginning to turn into a true cosmopolitan, meaning not a Dutchman, Englishman or Frenchman, but simply a man. With the world as my mother country…”
Sadly, despite this positive outlook, his mood would soon turn to one of misery.
As the months at Hackford Road passed, Vincent had begun to fall hopelessly in love with his landlady’s 19 year old daughter, Eugenie Loyer.
In the summer of 1874, Vincent finally plucked up the courage to declare his love for Eugenie… but he was told in no uncertain terms that the feeling wasn’t mutual- and that she was already engaged to a previous lodger.
This unrequited love was a huge knockback, sending the once optimistic young man into a spiral of depression and withdrawal.
By this point, Vincent’s younger sister, Anna had joined her brother in London and she too was lodging at Hackford Road. Despite Anna’s attempts to ease the embarrassing situation, the awkwardness between the Van Goghs and the Loyers soon became unbearable.
In August 1874, Vincent and Anna had no choice but to move away from Stockwell, securing new lodgings at nearby 395 Kennington Road with a Mr and Mrs Parker who owned a house known as Ivy Cottage- which has long since vanished.
One Sunday, in April 1875, Van Gogh is known to have travelled to Streatham Common, which he sketched. Tragically, that very same morning, the Parker’s 13 year old daughter, Elizabeth died from pneumonia.
Shortly afterwards, Goupils transferred Vincent to Paris where his sadness and isolation continued to plunge further.
Whilst in London, Vincent’s exposure to the plight of the poor; through art, literature and what he himself witnessed on the streets of the metropolis, had led him to develop a deeply committed social conscience.
Now of the opinion that art should be for all, he began to grow jaded with his chosen profession, upset that he was expected to treat art as an expensive commodity.
Consequently, Goupil and Cie April terminated Van Gogh’s contract in April 1876.
Vincent Returns to London
After being sacked, Vincent headed back to England where he hoped to forge a new career in teaching, securing work at a boarding school in Ramsgate where he gave lessons in Bible studies.
Shortly after joining, the school moved to a new location- Holme Court House in the south-west London suburb of Isleworth. Vincent transferred to the new address… but was so poor he had to walk to get there; a journey of over 80 miles which took him three days.
The school in Isleworth offered free bed and board but no salary. Van Gogh stayed until Christmas 1876 but with his prospects limited, he decided to return to the Netherlands, never to see England again.
14 years later, after a poverty-ridden life in which his mental health deteriorated and his art went unnoticed, Vincent van Gogh died aged just 37.
Although he is believed to have shot himself, the gun was never found.
London’s Van Gogh Links Today
A blue plaque dedicated to Van Gogh was not installed at his former Hackford Road home until 1973; exactly 100 years after he moved in.
The house languished in a poor state until March 2012 when it was put up for auction, selling for just over half a million pounds- the buyer is reputed to be an admirer of the great artist.
A video of the interior of 87 Hackford Road, filmed for The Guardian shortly before the sale, can be viewed below.
Just across from the house, a short road formerly known as Isabel Street has been transformed into ‘Van Gogh Walk’.
Unveiled in April 2013 to mark the 160th anniversary of the artist’s birth, Van Gogh Walk is a peaceful tribute which embraces Vincent’s love of nature with sunflower beds and quotes from the letters he wrote in happier times.
A short distance away, opposite Stockwell tube station Van Gogh can be glimpsed on a colourful mural, painted on the entrance to an old, deep-level air-raid shelter.
The young Vincent even appears on the back of the ‘Brixton Pound’; a currency designed to be spent at shops and businesses in the local area!
Where to see Van Gogh’s Paintings in London
The first major exhibition of Vincent van Gogh’s work came to London in 1947 and was unveiled at the Tate Gallery by the Dutch Ambassador.
Today, the capital holds a number of important works by Van Gogh which can be viewed below (click the images to enlarge).
If you wish to see the real thing however, please scroll further down for details on where to find each piece.
The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House:
* Self-portrait; Ear bandaged (1889)
* Peach Blossom in the Crau, (1889)
The National Gallery:
* A Wheatfield with Cypresses (1889)
* Head of a Peasant Woman (1884)
* Long Grass with Butterflies (1890)
* Sunflowers (1888)
* Two Crabs (1889)
* Van Gogh’s Chair (1888)
* Thatched Roofs (1884)
* A Corner of the Garden at St Paul’s Hospital at St Remy (1889)
* Farms near Auvers (1890)
* The Oise at Auvers (1890)
Cabbie’s Curios: Achilles’ Willie
In the south-eastern corner of Hyde Park, gazing across the constant din of traffic roaring between Park Lane and Hyde Park Corner, there towers this mighty effigy… the Achilles Statue:
The monument was unveiled in 1822 as a tribute to Arthur Wellesley- aka the Duke of Wellington; the politician and Field Marshal who led the coalition armies to victory at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815; a monumental clash which marked the end of Napoleon Bonaparte’s increasingly tyrannical reign.
The 18ft tall figure was forged by the renowned sculptor, Sir Richard Westmacott at his workshop in Pimlico.
Sir Richard must’ve had trouble reading his tape-measure because when the monumental artwork came to be installed, it transpired that it was far too big to squeeze through Hyde Park’s gates! This problem was quickly overcome however by knocking a great big hole in a nearby wall!
The bronze used to create the statue was obtained by melting down twenty-two French cannons which had been seized at the battles of Salamanca, Vittoria, Toulouse and Waterloo.
Construction cost a hefty £10,000- approximately £490,000 in todays money, the cash being raised solely by the ‘women of England’.
The unveiling ceremony was carried out by King George III; the monarch who famously suffered from poor mental health throughout his life.
In Greek mythology, Achilles was the powerful warrior from Homer’s Iliad, a hero of the Trojan War who liked a good scrap and was practically invincible (except of course, for the small matter of his troublesome heel).
It was this grand reputation, which the Georgians believed was comparable to their own victorious Duke, that led to the statue sharing the ancient hero’s name.
However, on closer inspection the powerful character turns out to be more Roman than Greek.
As a young man, Richard Westmacott had spent four years in Rome where he was taught his craft by the Italian sculptor, Antonio Canova.
Westmacott’s statue of Achilles is actually based on the two ‘Horse Tamer’ statues (known as ‘Castor’ and ‘Pollux’) which stand on Rome’s Quirinal Hill and with which the Pimlico based sculptor would’ve been most familiar.
It is also said that the head of the Achilles statue is based upon that of the Duke of Wellington himself. What do you think?…
Of course, the most important fact about the Achilles statue is this:
It was London’s first public, nude statue…
At the time, this was something which caused quite a stir (especially considering the generous financial contribution from the nation’s ladies as mentioned above!)
A fig leaf was later added to cool down the flustered Georgians… and so far there have been two incidents (in 1870 and 1961) in which several cheeky Londoners have attempted to chisel off the organic codpiece.
Shortly after being revealed in 1822, the saucy statue was lampooned in a cartoon by George Cruikshank entitled, ‘Making Decent!’ in which the politician, William Wilberforce is depicted holding his top hat over Achilles’ privates!
Cabbie’s Curios: London’s Secret Runway…
For some time now, there has been considerable debate over whether of not Heathrow Airport should build a third runway.
What many people involved in these discussions don’t realise is that there may already be an extra runway in London ready for use… and it’s right in the city centre!
This is of course all based on hearsay and secrecy, but if the rumours are to be believed, this covert runway lies on the western edge of Kensington Gardens…. a wide, tarmacked path more commonly known as the ‘Broad Walk’; a popular thoroughfare through the park.
The belief that Broad Walk may be a secret runway dates back to the mid-1950s when a large number of trees were uprooted and re-planted 25 yards back, thus making the Broad Walk wider and clearer, without obstruction.
Some say that this overhaul was carried for a specific reason- to enable the Broad Walk to act as an emergency base where, in the event of a national crisis (specifically a Soviet nuclear attack), a small aircraft could land and take off- thus enabling the Queen to be evacuated from the capital.
Although this rumour remains strictly unconfirmed, it certainly fits in with the history of the period. By the 1950s, the world was firmly in the icy grip of the Cold War and governments were quickly having to think up contingency plans to deal with the consequences of the terrifying new atomic weapons.
The era is well portrayed in the following short clip from 1958, which shows how RAF crews were required to get their Vulcan nuclear bombers into the skies within a nail-biting four minutes:
If the Broad Walk had been utilised as a platform to flee London, it would have been just one component of a wider evacuation plan. In the early days of the Cold War, the Royals would have been taken to a bunker in the West Country or possibly transferred to Canada.
A new course of action drawn up in the late 1960s and known as the ‘Python Plan’ would have seen the Queen taken to Scotland where, on the Royal yacht, Britannia she would have been kept on the move; transferred to a different Scottish loch each night, the Highland mountains providing sound cover from Soviet detection.
The Python Plan continued to be updated right up until the early 1990s…
If you’d like to know more about London’s Cold War connections, I have written two previous articles on the subject which can be found under the following links: