Charles Darwent discovers the little-known influences of British art and culture on the work of Vincent van Gogh.
On a bright June day in 1876, Vincent van Gogh (1853–90) set out to walk to his sister’s. There was nothing particularly odd about his stroll, other, perhaps, than its length. Anna van Gogh lived 100 miles away. Then, too, there was her address: Ivy Cottage, Welwyn, Hertfordshire.
Since 1874, Anna had been working as a teacher in England, van Gogh having been sent there by the art dealer Goupil & Cie shortly before her. After a brief (and disastrous) sojourn at Goupil’s in Paris, the artist had returned to a job in Ramsgate that spring. It was from 6, Royal Road, Ramsgate, that he set off on his brotherly visit.
As the exhibition opening today at Tate Britain shows, the three years van Gogh spent in England marked a turning point in his life. It was here that the vagaries of his mind first began to show. On his initial visit, in 1873, the 20-year-old Dutchman had lodged in the south London house of a Mrs Loyer. In a story that would famously recur in the ear-slicing incident in Arles, he fell unrequitedly in love with his landlady’s daughter. (Or, just possibly, with the landlady herself. ‘There is no such thing as an old woman!’ van Gogh wrote enigmatically to friends in Holland. ‘A woman doesn’t grow old as long as she loves and is loved.’)
By his 21st birthday, March 30, 1874, he was in the grip of what would be a lifelong melancholy.
He had also become a serious walker. A decade before, Charles Baudelaire had conjured up the flâneur – that ‘gentleman stroller of the city streets’, the hero of the Impressionists. Van Gogh, typic-ally, took Baudelaire to heart. At first, he walked the mere five miles to work in Covent Garden each day, clad in a black silk hat: ‘You can not be in London without one,’ he sniffed in a letter to his brother, Theo.
By that summer, he was walking 80 miles from London to Brighton; by 1876, the 100 from Ramsgate to Welwyn. If there’s an emblem that sums up van Gogh’s time in England, it’s the road.
This came in various forms. There was, for example, Mein-dert Hobbema’s The Avenue at Middelharnis, acquired by the National Gallery two years before van Gogh’s arrival. When Theo visited London in 1884, his brother singled out the painting as on no account to be missed.
Roads such as Hobbema’s, lined with perspectival trees, would recur in his own work throughout his career – in Road in Etten (1881) and Alley Bordered by Trees (1884); in Les Alyscamps, painted in the asylum in Arles in 1888.
Constable’s The Cornfield, likewise in the National Gallery, was also on Theo’s must-see list. Its road would reappear in Wheatfield with Crows (1890), a picture of the field in which van Gogh was to shoot himself days after he finished the painting.
Not all his English roads were in paintings. Van Gogh was also besotted by English writers – by George Eliot; by Dickens, whose empty chair, portrayed by Luke Fildes, inspired the painting of his own chair now in the National Gallery; by John Bunyan, whom he adored most. ‘If you can ever get Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, it’s very worthwhile reading,’ he wrote to Theo. ‘For my part I love it with heart and soul’.
It’s not hard to see why. The pilgrim on the road, lonely but hopeful, was van Gogh’s spiritual doppelgänger. When he left England for good in December 1876, he had little idea of being an artist. He would be a teacher or, like his father, a preacher.
Such drawings as survive of the ones he made here – of Brixton, of Ramsgate – are those of an amateur. It was the things he saw on his walks that were important, that would recur in his work. Van Gogh’s only painting of a London subject, made five months before his death in 1890, was based on a print by Gustave Doré: van Gogh, in England, had collected these assiduously.
The Prison Courtyard, on loan from the Pushkin Museum, shows inmates exercising at Newgate gaol. As van Gogh had done, they walk and walk, but, unlike his, their road leads nowhere.
It was only after his death that the British came to appreciate the work they had unwittingly helped shape. In 1910, Roger Fry had 25 van Goghs in ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’. Van Gogh, he said, had ‘disappeared’ from London since his death; his reappearance ‘dazzled, astonished and infuriated all cultured England’.
This happened again in 1947, when war-battered Britons flocked to the Tate to bask in the brilliance of his palette. The effect on local artists was electrifying: Frank Brangwyn’s undated Sunflowers and Jacob Epstein’s Epping Forest (1933) show this most literally.
The new exhibition begins with van Gogh’s debt to Britain and ends with Britain’s debt to van Gogh. It might, perhaps, have made two shows, but this can be managed by visiting it twice.
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