To coincide with the Van Gogh and Britain exhibition at the Tate, , I tell a little of the untold story of Vincent’s stay in this country, drawing on Vincent’s own words in his letters home.
Episode One: Vincent the teacher
After he was sacked by an art dealer, Vincent was an unpaid junior master at a dubious private school in Ramsgate, Kent. He was filling in time before becoming a Christian missionary in London, for which you had to be aged 24.
Vincent describes the headmaster, Mr Stokes.
‘He was a rather large man with a bald head and whiskers. They boys seemed to respect him, yet love him all the same. He was already playing marbles with them just a couple of hours after returning at the beginning of term!’
Though his moods were changeable; it wasn’t all marbles and fun.
‘Mr Stokes was sometimes very moody, and when the boys were too boisterous for him, it sometimes happened they didn’t get bread and tea in the evening. You should have seen them, standing at the window looking out. It was really rather sad. They really had so little apart from their food and drink to look forward to.’
He soon left the school, and walked the 90 miles to London in search of a missionary post. He made contact with various reverend gentlemen – and discovered a great physical energy in himself.
‘I often ran from one end of the city to the other to see various people, including a minister. I spent one night at Mr Reid’s and the next at Mr Gladwell’s, where they were very kind. Mr Gladwell kissed me goodnight and that did me good.’
He wanted to be a missionary to the poor in London.
‘I spoke various languages and had tended to associate, in Paris and in London, with people from poorer classes and foreigners, like myself, so I thought myself suited to this.’
He believed being a missionary in London was ‘rather special’.
‘One had to go round among the workers and the poor spreading God’s word and, if one had some experience, speak to them, track down and seek to help foreigners looking for work, or other people who were in some sort of difficulty.’
But while waiting to be 24, he linked up with Mr Stokes again, who had now moved to Isleworth in West London and brought his Ramsgate school with him…though he still wouldn’t pay Vincent.
‘He couldn’t give me a salary at first, for he said he could get plenty of people who’d work for board and lodging alone, which was certainly true.’
Vincent taught the children biblical history by day, and at night, told them Andersen’s fairy tales, and sneaked in a bit of Dutch history too.
‘When I finished my evening stories, they’d all have fallen asleep unnoticed. It was no wonder really, because they ran around a lot in the playground.’
To be continued…Next time, we discover Vincent’s favourite English novels, the pictures he liked at Hampton Court, the joys of Hyde Park – and we meet his friend Harry.
Van Gogh’s quotations are taken from my book, ‘Conversations with Vincent Van Gogh,’ published by White Crow.