Van Gogh and Britain

A three-year stay inspired Vincent’s life and works, writes John Westbrooke

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Not a lot of people know that Vincent Van Gogh lived in England. It’s understandable: artists from Holbein to Whistler were drawn to Britain, but unlike them, Van Gogh did no painting here. He arrived in 1873, aged just 20 and not yet an artist. He didn’t become one until 1881, years after he left, and in all his 900-odd paintings just one is of a British subject, and it wasn’t done from life.

But his three or so years in London and Ramsgate were invaluable in forming his character and setting him on the road to greatness, according to Tate Britain’s new exhibition. “I love London,” he wrote.

He bought a top hat and walked every day from his lodgings in Brixton to the Goupil art dealership in Covent Garden where he worked. He went rowing on the river and walking in the parks. He visited art galleries and exhibitions; the National Gallery was five minutes from the office. He admired work by British painters – the Pre-Raphaelites, Millais, Constable’s “The Valley Farm”, even the now almost forgotten George Henry Boughton; they’re all hung here – and was still writing to his family about them many years later. He studied black and white prints, a feature of the London art trade, and later owned thousands.

These included recent ones by Gustave Doré, a Frenchman who also worked in London: among those featured at the Tate is “Evening on the Thames”, showing lights from Parliament reflecting dimly in the water in what was probably fairly smoggy darkness. Van Gogh would have known the view well, it was on his route to work. It’s a big jump from there to his “Starry Night over the Rhône”, in which the street lights of Arles and brilliant stars in a clear sky produce more dazzling reflections, but you can see the connection.

Another Doré engraving, “Newgate: the Exercise Yard”, similarly inspired Van Gogh’s only work set in London. His version, “The Prison Courtyard” (1890), was painted while he was in a psychiatric hospital, feeling trapped, before his death. It’s almost identical to Doré’s, showing men “exercising” by walking in a tight circle under high walls, though a little more heavenly light seems to fall on its subjects.

But he also responded to a work by one of his own countrymen, Meindert Hobbema’s “The Avenue at Middelharnis”, a path of high, almost bare trees that lead the eye back to the solitary figure walking toward the viewer, adding depth and perspective to the composition. Van Gogh tried something similar in “Avenue of Poplars in Autumn” (1884) and varied it in “Path in the Garden of the Asylum” (1889), where the trees and path form a diagonal rather than a straight line.

It wasn’t just art that excited him in London, though. He spoke English (along with Dutch and French) and immersed himself in the work of authors like Dickens and Eliot, who wrote about the poor as well as the rich – he would have seen plenty of both in Victorian London, and wanted to paint the way Dickens wrote. He had a strong social conscience and a religious bent, identifying with down-and-outs. “At Eternity’s Gate” is one of many works depicting sorrowing old men; he reportedly sat like that himself, head in hands, when he was at his worst in hospital.

After leaving his job at Goupil, Van Gogh became for a while a teacher and a preacher, before returning to the Continent and taking up a suggestion from his brother Theo that he might make a painter. Notoriously, he sold only one work in his lifetime, and became the archetype of the misunderstood artist, appreciated only after his death – in his case, by suicide in 1890, aged 37.

In Britain, he was scarcely recognised until a Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1910, and even that was controversial, with the paintings facing mockery in the press and Van Gogh himself being half-admired as a madman/genius.

But gradually the work of the man who had picked up British influences in Brixton some 40 years earlier began in turn to influence another generation of British artists. The Tate has hung the National Gallery’s version of “Sunflowers” (1888) alongside a collection of imitations and homages by the likes of Frank Brangwyn, Harold Gilman – who used to announce “A toi, Van Gogh!” before starting a new painting – William Nicholson and Jacob Epstein. It’s probably the biggest line-up of sunflower paintings you’ll ever see (with tulips and chrysanthemums for variety). Some are pretty good, but if none has the power and intensity of the original, that’s to be expected.

Less directly, Vanessa Bell and Francis Bacon are among painters hung here whose works reflect what they learnt from him.

The exhibition charts Van Gogh’s reputation in Britain until after World War 2, when a 1947 Tate show proved a post-war tonic: the lines outside were compared to queues for food during rationing. For all he never actually painted anything here, it features an enormous range of his work, from sketches he drew on letters home from London, to one of the two works left unfinished at his death, “Farms near Auvers”. It deserves to be as popular as its 1947 predecessor.

Van Gogh in Britain runs until 11 August 2019 at Tate Britain. Tickets £22, concessions available.