It begins with Van Gogh’s Painter on the Road to Tarascon 1888, which was destroyed by the Allied bombing of the Kaiser-FriedrichMuseum at Magdeburg, or with Francis
Bacon’s convulsive reconfigurations of that work. Like Bacon, I had been uncomfortably schooled in Cheltenham, a town of spooks and returned colonials for which neither of us had much sympathy. But the teaching was, in some respects, surprisingly liberal: I heard about Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, Picasso and Braque, Wyndham Lewis and vorticism. We were told about Vincent van Gogh’s (1853–1890) time among the potato pickers and his days in Paris, but little or nothing about his work as an art dealer in imperial London. And nothing at all about his passion for English literature: Charles Dickens, George Eliot, John Keats and Thomas Carlyle. The basic trajectory was always conflict and struggle in the dark north and that final, brief liberation of Arles, the overwhelming intensity of vision and the crows of madness, as the starry heavens seethe and boil.
In 1889, the year of his removal to the asylum at SaintRémy-de-Provence when the rubbing away of the thin mantle between individual and universal consciousness was absolute, Vincent wrote to his brother Theo about experiencing ‘that glimpse into a superhuman infinitude ... that you come upon in many places in Shakespeare’. English literature, with its sentiment and confident address, helped to shape the artist’s mature vision. To the end, Van Gogh pictured himself as an overburdened working man halted between trees on the pilgrim’s road. The motif derived from George Boughton’s painting, Godspeed! Pilgrims Setting Out for Canterbury. Here too was the inspiration for Vincent’s first sermon at Kew Road Methodist church: life as pilgrimage. It is known that Van Gogh visited the Royal Academy exhibition in 1874 at which Godspeed! was hung.
In a portrait painted at Saint-Rém y, the Christmas Books of Dickens are placed beside Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the table in front of a faintly smiling and duplicitous Marie Ginoux, the subject of The Arlesienne 1890. But the paper-covered volumes do not belong to Madame Ginoux. They are realised physical objects carrying Van Gogh back to the innocence of his London days. Vincent had his top hat, but the uniform of international commerce pinched. The shadowy other, that nagging internal voice, had not yet declared itself. The temporary immigrant – no papers or passport required – sold pictures and collected prints, but he did not paint. He sketched in the margin of letters: topographic information, churches, schools and lodging houses. He copied and worked variants on illustrations he admired in the magazines of the day. Returning to his lodgings, he paused. ‘When I was in London, how often I would stand on the Thames Embankment and draw as I made my way home from Southampton Street in the evening, and it looked terrible.’
London: A Pilgrimage, a record of walks undertaken by the journalist Blanchard Jerrold and his illustrator, Gustave Doré, was published in 1872. Vincent gathered the prints and pinned them to the walls of his rooms, wherever his migrations carried him. It is a night city, a Stygian narrative. The river is poverty and suicide, pale lamps in the fog. London is bursting at its soiled seams. It is all dust and foul water. The drowned return to life and riches are excavated from filth: the city of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend.
In good standing after his apprenticeship as a dealer at Adolphe Goupil’s gallery in The Hague, Vincent was transferred to the Covent Garden outlet on Southampton Street in May 1873. That other hobnailed visionary and sun worshipper, Arthur Rimbaud, had returned to London to rejoin Paul Verlaine in the same year. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire, friend and promoter of early modernist painters, arrived at 75 Landor Road – just a few streets from Vincent’s rooms at 87 Hackford Road – in May 1904, hoping to persuade Annie Playden to marry him. But she left for America and never returned.
‘Parks and gardens had a special appeal, often with the furtive pull of eavesdropping on those lovers in a conspiratorial quest for privacy against the witness of the streets. This London stayed with the painter.’
Vincent’s own failed courtship of Eugenie Loyer, daughter of his landlady, Ursula, devastated him. Eugenie, who may have tolerated or barely noticed his interest, was already engaged when he made his awkward approach. In London, it is thought, Vincent purchased his first experience with a prostitute. He wrote to Theo about his ‘love for those women who are so damned and condemned and despised by the clergymen from the pulpit’. In later times, on behalf of his Dickensian employers, he would collect unpaid school fees in Whitechapel.
Visiting Tate Britain in August 2018 to hear something about the complexity of Vincent’s engagement with British art and literature, I remembered 1962 and my repeated walks across the river from Brixton, where I was a film student, in order to grapple with the major Bacon show at the Tate on Millbank. It hit me with the force of a magnetic storm. I wanted to look again at Bacon’s Homage to Van Gogh series, and, in particula r, his version of Painter on the Road to Tarascon. The rucksack, the melting, tarry shadows: this moment, like a freeze frame smoking in the projector, was the motif that defined my future relationship with London.
But if Bacon, and Harold Gilman – who was avid for the hurt of colour in a period dominated by Walter Sickert’s chewy tobacco browns – demonstrate the pull of Van Gogh on future generations, then that energy flowed both ways. The heat of the South, those thick gestural strokes, are recoverable from
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