Part Two of Van Gogh in England
Vincent’s first experience of London was working for Goupils, an art dealer. He was sent from their Hague branch, which was much more interesting than their London branch apparently. But he did enjoy the city.
‘I walked as much as I could in London. It was absolutely beautiful., even though it was in the city. There were lilacs and hawthorns and laburnums blossoming in all the gardens and the chestnut trees were magnificent. If one truly loves nature, one finds beauty everywhere. So I enjoyed the walk from home to the office, and in the evening, from the office back home. It took about three quarters of an hour.’
Meanwhile, away from the office, his soul ached to be ‘useful’.
‘I was thinking “How could I be useful? Of what service could I be?” There was something inside me. What could it be?’
And he saw great need among Londoners.
‘There was such a yearning for religion among the people in the big cities. Many a worker in a shop or factory had had a remarkably pure, pious youth. City life often took away the ‘early dew of the morning’ – yet the yearning for the ‘old, old story’ remained. After all, the bottom of one’s heart remains the bottom of one’s heart.’
He enjoyed reading George Eliot at this time and also had a soft spot of Pilgrim’s Progress.
‘I remember telling Theo (his brother) that if he could get hold of Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, it was very worthwhile reading. For my part, I loved it heart and soul.’
He also enjoyed his visit to Hampton Court and the art collection there, gathered by Charles 1.
‘There were many portraits by Holbein which were very beautiful, and two beautiful Rembrandts – the portrait of his wife, and one of a rabbi. And also beautiful Italian paintings by Bellini, Titian, and a Leonardo da Vinci.’
But it wasn’t just the paintings. He was struck also by those who had lived there; and one couple in particular.
‘I couldn’t help thinking vividly of the people who had lived at Hampton Court, Charles 1 and his wife, Queen Henrietta. She was the one who said ‘I thank thee God for having made me queen, though an unhappy queen.’
Was this also his story as a painter? His teaching career then took a change of direction. He left Mr Stokes’ school in Isleworth and joined a new school, run the Rev Jones, who, unlike Mr Stokes, actually paid him a little money.
‘I remember the sweet violets they sold on the streets of London. I bought some for Mrs Jones, the headmaster’s wife, to make up for the pipe I smoked now and then…mostly late in the evening in the playground. The tobacco there was rather rough though!’
To be continued…
Vincent’s words are taken from his letters home.
My ‘Conversations with Vincent Van Gogh’, using his actual words,is published by White Crow.