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)