Discovering van Gogh's Britain

Anna Walker

Anna Walker explores the indelible mark van Gogh's time in London left on his art. 

Vincent van Gogh pulls his top hat over his tufty red hair and strides out into the cold night air, towards the river. He loves the views there, with the lights of the stars and the city twinkling on the water’s surface, and he sketches them often. One day he will create a masterpiece influenced by this view. But he’s not stood on the French banks of the Rhône. He’s walking alongside London’s embankment and admiring the view of the Thames.

Vincent was just 20 years old when he came to England in 1873. He stayed here for three years, working for an art dealer in Covent Garden and boarding in Brixton, Lambeth and Isleworth.

As he wrote to his beloved brother Theo, in 1874, “Things are going well for me here. I have a wonderful home and it’s a great pleasure to observe London and the English way of life and the English themselves, and I also have nature and art and poetry, and if that isn’t enough, what is?”

In awe of industrialisation, the lack of censorship, the full force of capitalism and the vibrant arts scene, Vincent loved to stroll in the city’s parks, visit its galleries, row on the Thames and read Charles Dickens and

George Eliot, whose work inspired in him the idea of creating “art for the people”. He even fell in love here, with the daughter of his landlord, though he was to leave broken hearted.

"Newspapers compared the queues to see Van Gogh's work in 1947 to the queues outside food shops during rationing"

 

The young Vincent could hardly have imagined that one day the entire city would know his name. In fact, in 1947, 57 years after his death, a Tate exhibition of his work was dubbed, “the miracle on the Millbank” by the press, with over 150,000 visitors flocking to the gallery, including the Queen. Newspapers compared the queues to those outside food shops during rationing, saying the people were “colour-starved” after years of war-time austerity. So enthused were the waiting crowds, that a letter from the Tate to the Arts Council requested reimbursement for the three years’ worth of damage to its floors that was done in just five weeks.

By the exhibition’s close, Britain was a nation bewitched by van Gogh’s story—the misunderstood genius, who became one of the greatest artists of all time, despite painting for only ten years. A Guardian review described Vincent as a “disturbing meteor blazing in an almost empty sky” and “the kind of genius that cannot go out of fashion.”

This month, the first exhibition of the artist’s work since that blockbuster show 70 years ago will open at the Tate, examining Vincent’s relationship with Britain and exploring the art, literature and culture that shaped his career. The show will feature some of the artist’s most renowned work alongside paintings by British artists inspired by van Gogh’s legacy—many of whom were among the crowds for the 1947 show.

In anticipation, I made the pilgrimage to the artist’s homeland to visit the Van Gogh Museum and witness the mark he made on the town of Nuenen, where he created the infamous The Potato Eaters. Surprisingly, it was this painting, not the bright yellows of The Sunflowers, that proved the most popular in 1947. Perhaps war-torn Britain could relate more to a family sharing a meagre meal than they could to the subjects of the painter’s more vibrant works.

 

The Amsterdam Vincent knew looked much the same as it does today, though the canals are perhaps less animated now than they once were. In Vincent’s day a popular tradition of “eel-grabbing” was still rife. A rope would be strung between two houses and a live eel tied to the middle. Men in small boats would glide beneath and attempt to pull the eel down—winning a substantial sum if they succeeded.

Cruising along the canal ways today, visitors to Amsterdam can spot murals to van Gogh everywhere. Hidden under bridges, sprawled across the walls of welcoming pancake houses, on the shutters of shut-down coffeeshops. The “beautiful city” the artist often frequented has adopted him as something of a patron saint. As I explore the city by boat, the snow falls in flakes as thick and heavy as Vincent’s brushwork, transforming the capital into the winter wonderland of the Hendrick Avercamp paintings hanging in the nearby Rijksmuseum.

"When Vincent's work was shown in 1910, one critic claimed, 'The exhibition is either a bad joke or a swindle'"

The recently renovated Van Gogh Museum however, is toasty and thoroughly modern, a testament to an artist who was so ahead of his time. As well as enjoying the 200 paintings and 500 drawings in the collection, in anticipation of the Tate exhibition, I’m among a group of journalists escorted into the vaults, rarely opened to the public, to see the works being prepared for London. Among them are Vincent’s collection of prints, including many by British artists. During his stay in England, the young artist spent hours admiring the window displays of magazines such as The Graphic and London News. There’s magic in looking at these prints up close, imagining Vincent admiring and collecting them, and noticing the tiny pin holes in their corners, where they were hung on the walls of his bedroom and studio.

The English publications who so inspired Van Gogh, derided his work when it came to Britain. Shocked by the vivid pieces displayed in Roger Fry’s infamous 1910 “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” show, Robert Ross of the Morning Post dubbed Vincent a “lunatic” and declared that “the emotions of these painters…are of no interest except to…the specialist in abnormality.” Another critic claimed, “the exhibition is either an extremely bad joke or a swindle.” Sir Claude Phillips of The Telegraph threw down his exhibition catalogue and stamped on it.

 

Seventy miles south of Amsterdam is the pretty town of Nuenen, where Van Gogh lived and worked between 1883 and 1885. The January snow transforms the neighbourhood, with the white ground, white sky and white buildings giving it the appearance of an untouched canvas.

The people of Nuenen are clearly proud of the years Vincent spent here, and much of the town remains unchanged. The parsonage where he lived with his parents still stands, a short walk away from his father’s church. He immortalised the scene in “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen”, which he created for his mother when a broken leg left her unable to attend mass. He revisited the piece when his father died in 1885, adding mourning clothes to the congregation. As we sit in the church—now hired out for weddings—we learn of the painting’s unique history. How it was stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in 2002, and not recovered until 2016 near Pompeii, Italy, concealed in the walls of drug lord Raffaele Imperiale’s home. The village celebrated for days when the news of the painting’s safe recovery was announced.

Nuenen’s own “Vincentre” museum and charming statues of Vincent and the figures of The Potato Eaters make for a special accompaniment to a visit to the Netherlands. More art lovers should visit this little town on their way to the big hitters of the Van Gogh and Rijks museums.

As I head back to London, I imagine Vincent’s journey to Britain. How nervous and excited he must have been at just 20-years-old, to arrive in a city so full of promise and industry.

“A few days ago, we received a picture by de Nittis, a view of London on a rainy day, Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament,” he wrote to Theo from Paris in 1875. “I used to pass over Westminster Bridge every morning and evening and know how it looks when the sun sets behind Westminster Abbey, and how it looks early in the morning, and in winter, in snow and fog. When I saw the picture, I felt how much I loved London.”

"Van Gogh and Britain" will be at the Tate Britain in London from March 27 until August 11, 2019