Sunday, November 06, 2016

Van Gogh in South London

As a young man, the artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) spent a couple of years living in London. Thanks to his practice of sending regular letters to his brother Theo and others, we know quite a lot about his time here including his movements across South London. The complete letters are available online courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum.

Van Gogh drawing of 87 Hackford Road - rediscovered in 1973
(source: wikipedia)
It was in the summer of 1873, while working for an art dealer,  that he moved to lodgings at 87 Hackford Road, Stockwell.  He wrote of it: 'I now have a room, as I’ve long been wishing, without sloping beams and without blue wallpaper with a green border. It’s a very diverting household where I am now, in which they run a school for little boys'. The 'diverting household' was the house of Ursula Loyer and her daughter Eugenie. A year later, Van Gogh declared his love for the latter, and when rebuffed the heartbroken artist moved  with his sister Anna to new lodgings  at the Ivy Cottage 395 Kennington Road - the house of John Parker, a publican. While he was staying there, the landlord's daughter Elizabeth Parker died of pneumonia, as mentioned in an April 1875 letter to Theo:

'I’m sending you herewith a small drawing. I made it last Sunday, the morning a daughter (13 years old) of my landlady died. It’s a view of Streatham Common, a large, grass-covered area with oak trees and broom. It had rained in the night, and the ground was soggy here and there and the young spring grass fresh and green'.


We know that he visited Dulwich Picture Gallery, writing on  4 August 1873) 'I had a nice day last Monday. The first Monday in Aug. is a holiday here. I went with one of the Germans to Dulwich, an hour and a half outside L., to see the museum there, and afterwards we walked to a village about an hour further on. The countryside here is so beautiful; many people who have their business in L. live in some village or other outside L. and come to the city every day by train' (L. is of course London). Exactly a year later he returned to the Gallery with his sister Anna (see note)

After a period in Paris in 1875, Van Gogh also spent much of 1876 living in England, in Ramsgate and then Isleworth. It was during this period that he visited the Gladwell family in Lewisham, who lived at 114 Lee High Rd.  It was a sad occasion, as he wrote from Isleworth (18 Aug. 1876) 'Yesterday I went to see Gladwell... Something very sad happened to his family: his sister, a girl full of life, with dark eyes and hair, 17 years old, fell from her horse while riding on Blackheath. She was unconscious when they picked her up, and died 5 hours later without regaining consciousness. I went there as soon as I heard what had happened and that Gladwell was at home. I left here yesterday morning at 11 o’clock, and had a long walk to Lewisham, the road went from one end of London to the other. At 5 o’clock I was at Gladwell’s.  I’d gone to their gallery first, but it was closed'.

Harry Gladwell was a friend of Vincent's who he had met  while working in Paris. It was his sister Susannah Gladwell who had. Gladwell's father, Henry Gladwell, ran a gallery in Gracechruch Street in the City of London. The six hour walk from Isleworth to the City and then to Lewisham is around 30 km. His route from the City would have presumably been across London Bridge and then down the Old Kent Road, through New Cross and up what is now Lewisham Way. 

Van Gogh wrote home in October 1876:  'One of these days, perhaps, I’ll go to London or Lewisham again', and soon he did. In Isleworth Van Gogh worked in a school and was sometimes sent by its headmaster, Thomas Slade-Jones, on errands such as collecting school fees. He wrote to his parents in November 1876: 'It is already late, and early tomorrow morning I must go to London and Lewisham, for Mr. Jones...I must be in the two remotest parts of London: in Whitechapel - that very poor part which you have read about in Dickens; and then across the Thames in a little steamer and from there to Lewisham'. He added the next day 'I started this morning at four o'clock, now it is two. I have just passed through the old cabbage fields - now for Lewisham. One sometimes asks, how shall I ever reach my destination?'. Wonder where the cabbage fields were? I guess the 'little steamer' crossing could have been at Woolwich.

Later that month he was back in Lewisham again, this time visiting the Gladwells at the end of another long journey: 'I left here at 4 in the morning, arrived at Hyde Park at half past six, the mist was lying on the grass and leaves were falling from the trees, in the distance one saw the shimmering lights of street-lamps that hadn’t yet been put out, and the towers of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and the sun rose red in the morning mist – from there on to Whitechapel, that poor district of London, then to Chancery Lane and Westminster, then to Clapham to visit Mrs Loyer again, her birthday was the day before... I also went to Mr Obach’s to see his wife and children again [314 Brixton Road]. Then from there to Lewisham, where I arrived at the Gladwells at half past three. It was exactly 3 months ago that I was there that Saturday their daughter was buried, I stayed with them around 3 hours and thoughts of many kinds occurred to all of us, too many to express'. 

Van Gogh mentioned his friend Harry in a letter in December 1877:  'I hope he’ll be able to go to Lewisham at Christmas. You know that painting by Cuyp in the museum here, an old Dutch family, when he saw that he stood looking at it for a long time and then spoke of ‘the house built on the rock’ and of his home in Lewisham. I, too, have memories of his father’s house and will not easily forget it. Much and strong and great love  lives there under that roof, and its fire is in him still, it is not dead, but sleepeth'.

No comments: