Tuesday 18 June 2019

VAN GOGH AND BRITAIN (Tate Britain 27th March – 11th August 2019)


 The entrance to special exhibitions at Tate Britain is by way of the side entrance in Atterbury Street, opposite The Chelsea School of Art. This entrance is reached by way of a sloping ramp to the underground level. Along the smooth limestone wall that faces this entrance has been placed a  a large elongated poster advertising the new Van Gogh exhibition. The self portrait of Van Gogh used in the poster is the portrait he painted in 1889, possibly in Arles and most likely the last of his self-portraits. The self-portrait advertising this exhibition is an intense painting. The eyes, are piercing, and yet have a fragility; a nervousness showing in them. He appears unsure and intense at the same time. The air around the face is dark, vibrating, flowing like a stream of black water surrounding him. The skin colours on his face, bright yellows and pale greens, created with swirling brush strokes, ripple and move like the watery air around it. His hair on the top of his head flames bright red and his beard and moustache almost radiate a heat; the same flaming intensity. The person who painted this is experiencing every atom of himself

The exhibition is in two parts, firstly Van Gogh's experience in London and its effects on him as an artist is covered and secondly the exhibition reveals the impact Van Gogh had on British artists especially in the early twentieth century up to the1950s. The radical ideas of religion and politics that was thriving in London when Van Gogh arrived encouraged his interest in religion and his  concern for working class people. As well as working in the art trade he tried teaching and preaching as career paths.


For an exhibiton about Van Gogh there are a considerable number of prints, illustrations and paintings that are by other artists. These were of great importance to Van Gogh ‘s development as an artist. British print makers showed subjects dramatized with light and shade and provided unusual and new ways of composition. Van Gogh studied all these aspects carefully. There are many examples of the pictures Van Gogh was interested in  such as, prints by Gustav Dore that include prints of Lambeth Gas Works, Houndsditch, St Katherines Dock, The Houses of Parliament by Night and a sketch entitled, Coffee Stall- Early Morning. Although Van Gogh was not an artist at this time of his life, in letters to friends and family he often included sketches of places he saw. He was a good writer too. His letters home were detailed and covered art ,and religion as well as recounts of his activities while staying in London. He sketched, The Austin Friars Church London and the small Churches at Petersham and Turnham Green and often sketched figures walking down long avenues of trees. He was a subscriber to The Graphic magazine which was a social reforming newspaper and featured  art work portraying working class life. Van Gogh was taken by the artists who worked for The Graphic and called them,

“ the great portrayers.”


Another part of the exhibition shows rural scenes painted by Constable and Turner that Van Gogh mentions seeing in his letters to his brother Theo. You can  see how Van Gogh learned from these artists and began to look at the landscape the way they did, incorporating many of their compositional techniques.


After looking at the artists that influenced Van Gogh in Britain the exhibition focuses more on Van Gogh’s paintings themselves showing many pictures he painted in Paris and also while in the South of France in Arles. The Paris paintings tend to be darker, portraits of associates, a pair of boots and personal subjects. In Arles , the light and vividness of the landscape explodes from his canvases.

The final part of the exhibition details the legacy Van Gogh left after his death in 1890. Twenty years after Van Gogh died, in December 1910, there was an exhibiton in London called, “ Manet and the Post Impressionists.”The term,” Post Impressionists,” was invented for this exhibition. It introduced Van Gogh’s art to Britain. British artists were greatly influenced by this exhibition. Virginia Woolf wrote,
“ on or about December 1910, human character changed.”


Virgina Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell was one of the first artists to take direct inspiration form Van Gogh. A portrait she did of Roger Fry, in 1912, the art critic and member of The Bloomsbury Group is one example. The Vineyard also painted by Vanessa Bell, in 1930 is another example.  Other British artists who were influenced by Van Gogh at this time are also featured. Flower Painting, by Mathew Smith in 1913, Yellow Landscape 1892 by Roderic O’Connor and Miss Jekylls Gardening Boots by William Nicholson in 1920 is almost a straight copy of Van Gogh’s boots he painted in Paris in 1886.


Van Gogh looked at paintings and drawings very carefully  and learned from them. He was not taught how to paint and never took an art course. His learning process was very much brought about by looking and thinking and discovering ways of interpreting what he saw and what he believed. I found the exhibition an inspiration getting a sense of how Van Gogh saw the world.



William |Nicholson, Gertrude Jekyll's Boots.

BOOTS by Van Gogh while in Paris.

VAN GOGH. His life in London.

During his stay in London between 1873 to 1876 Van Gogh tried various occupations, art dealer, preacher and teacher. He failed at them all, but each provided experiences that influenced what was to come. They helped ignite Vincent into being the artist he became. The process was a journey of self-discovery. Using a religious allegory, Van Gogh would know it well. His  letters show he would think in this way.  The apostles huddled together in the upper room, at Pentecost, after the crucifixion of Jesus,  failures but  inflamed and inspired by the Holy Spirit. This scene  encapsulates Van Goghs feelings at this time. His paintings  show that passion and a spiritual awareness of the world around him.

 Vincent Van Gogh was twenty years old arrived in London in May 1873.  For two years he worked for Goupil art dealers near Covent garden in Southampton Street and later moved to Bedford Row. The company moved to Bedford Row in May 1875 and Vincent wrote to his brother Theo enthusing about the new gallery.

“Our gallery is now finished and it’s beautiful, we have many beautiful things at the moment: Jules Dupré, Michel, Daubigny, Maris, Israëls, Mauve, Bisschop, &c.” 

The Goupil firm dealt in reproductions, which Van Gogh collected himself, but later in Bedford Row they began to sell original paintings too. He wrote often to his brother Theo and in the letters he enthused about his experiences in London. The 13th June 1873.

“Last Sunday I went to the country with Mr Orbach, my principal, to Boxhill; it is a high hill about six hours by road from London, partially chalky and overgrown with box and on one side a wood of high oak trees. The country is beautiful here, quite different from Holland or Belgium. Everywhere you see charming parks with high trees and shrubs. Everyone is allowed to walk there.”

Van Gogh loved British culture and this emerged in the art he created later. He knew four languages including English and spoke and read well in all of them. He read and reread all of Dickens novels and said,

“My life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens described.”

In his letters to friends and family he mentions by name over one hundred books written in English, Hard Times and A Christmas Carol by Dickens, Macbeth and King Lear by Shakespeare. He also read  George Elliot, John Keats the poet, Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, The Bible  and many more. He was influenced by artists portrayal of British scenes such as Gustav Dore, James Whistler and John Everett Millais. Van Gogh immersed himself in culture while he lived in England visiting museums and galleries. He walked everywhere and sometimes rowed on the Thames with acquaintances for pleasure and travelled on the underground too.


20th July 1873 to Theo.
“There are some good painters here, though, including Millais, who made ‘The Huguenot’, Ophelia, &c., engravings of which you probably know, they’re very beautiful. Then Boughton, of whom you know the ‘Puritans going to church’  in our Galerie photographique.I’ve seen very beautiful things by him. Moreover, among the old painters, Constable, a landscape painter who lived around 30 years ago, whose work is splendid, something like Diaz and Daubigny. And Reynolds and Gainsborough, who mostly painted very, very beautiful portraits of women, and then Turner, after whom you’ll probably have seen engravings.”

 He lived for a while in a small terraced house in Stockwell near the Oval Cricket Ground. The house has a blue plaque commemorating his stay there. He became friends with the daughter of the landlady and enjoyed the company of three Germans living in the same house.
2nd July 1873 to Theo.

“The neighbourhood where I live is very pretty, and so peaceful and convivial that one almost forgets one is in London.
In front of every house is a small garden with flowers or a couple of trees, and many houses are built very tastefully in a sort of Gothic style.
Still, I have to walk for more than half an hour to reach the countryside.
We have a piano in the drawing room, and there are also three Germans living here who really love music, which is most agreeable.”


 Groupil, who were expanding their trade in prints and original artists while he was with them, provided the opportunity for Van Gogh to see illustrations of modern subjects that included the use of light and shade. He learned about the British , “black and white,” tradition. Van Gogh himself collected over two thousand prints.These prints  provided compositions that were new. When Van Gogh was dismissed from the firm of Groupal he started preaching and teaching in places as diverse as Isleworth in London near Richmond and in Ramsgate in Kent.

The Richmomd Local Historical Society, which covers the area of Richmond and Isleworth,  have researched the places Van Gogh frequented in Isleworth and some of the people he was associated with during his time in London.

Van Gogh lodged in 87 Hackford Road, north of Brixton in Stockwell near The Oval Cricket ground. He fell in love with the landladies daughter Eugenie. He spent the first two years working for the art dealer, Groupil, first in Southampton Road and later in Bedford Street on the west side of Covent Garden. He was dismissed from Goupils in January 1876. There is no evidence for why he was asked to leave.Before moving to their office in London he had worked for Goupil in Paris. Photographs of him at this time show him slightly disheveled in appearance which does not  fit the image of an art expert and art salesman. Van Gogh went on to try other ways of making his living. He was an earnest, intense young man. He first turned to teaching at a school in Ramsgate, from April 1876, run by a gentleman called Mr Stokes. Stokes later moved his school to Isleworth located on the north bank of the Thames just west of Twickenham and Richmond, a few miles from the centre of London. He lived at Linkfield House number 183 Twickenham Road. There was a problem though, Mr Stokes did not keep his promise to pay Van Gogh after his first months trial. He left and joined another school nearby at Holme Court, 158 Twickenham Road run by a congregational minister, the Reverend Thomas Slade Jones. Jones paid him a salary of £15 a year plus board and lodging. Van Gogh felt a strong religious calling. He was the son and grandson of Dutch Reform pastors. In July 1876 he wrote to Theo,

“being a London missionary is rather special. I believe; one has to go around among the workers and the poor spreading God’s word……….Last week I was in London a couple of times to find out the possibility of my becoming one ( missionary)….I may well be suited to this… To do this however I have to be at least 24 years old and so in my case I still have a year to wait.”

 He continued as a teacher and spent time sketching and sketches were included in his letters to Theo and other friends and family members. Reverend Slade Thomas thought Van Gogh had a calling to be a pastor. He served at the congregational church in Chiswick Road Turnham Green. Early in October 1886 Van Gogh began to help  Slade Jones with his parish work. He visited the sick, became an assistant teacher at the Sunday School and he helped with the mid week adult Bible studies.

There are records of him attending prayer meetings at the Methodist Church in Kew Road Richmond. Fourteen letters, from July to November 1876 to his brother Theo, are lengthy, exuberant and have many scriptural references Their intensity and emotions could, however, reflect a bipolar episode. There is a possibility he preached at the Vineyard Congregational Church Richmond in December 1876. When he returned to Holland for Christmas in 1876 his health was poor. His parents persuaded him not to return to England. A job was found for him in his uncle’s book shop in Dordrecht. He never returned to England again.

The letters of Vincent Van Gogh: http://www.webexhibits.org/vangogh/

TATE BRITAIN 27 March – 11 August 2019 “The EY Exhibition, "Van Gogh,and Britain.”


  1. Tony, I learned so much here! Didn't know of his connection with England. Constable and Turner are more my style than Van Gogh, but I do enjoy looking at his work and learning more about him.

    1. Thanks Jean. By going to this exhibition I learned a lot about Van Gogh. I felt inspired by him.