the work of Spencer Gore, Matthew Smith and David Bomberg. But the original cold British exile, with his drawings in the corners of letters to Theo, is still largely untapped.
The address of Van Gogh’s first London perch has not been identified. There were German lodgers and parrots. The move to Hackford Road brought him within walking distance – 45 minutes it is said – of his place of business in Southampton Street. Attempting to retrace his footsteps after my meeting at Tate Britain I can only marvel at the length of his stride. It would force a casual pedestrian into something close to a jog to accomplish the distance in the time allowed. Vincent’s morning commute, the movement between modest domesticity and the never-satisfied engines of commerce so nicely calibrated by Dickens, offered up visions of working London’s ‘Monday-morning-like sobriety and studied simplicity’.
Sometimes in the company of his sister Anna, who was training to be a teacher, Vincent took in the orthodox sights: St Paul’s, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and Hampton Court. 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: ‘Hampton Court with its avenues of linden trees full of rookeries’.
The address of 87 Hackford Road is now a regeneration site – boxed and posted with optimistic predictions of the good times to come. Van Gogh’s blue plaque is a trompe l’oeil reproduction on the protective shell. Close at hand is a little memorial park dressed with carved quotations. There are laminated notices telling us how Vincent was ‘enchanted by his walks in and around Stockwell’. Attached to a tree at the mouth of Van Gogh Walk is a notice offering a reward for a ‘Lost Bird’, a green parrot. In a tub on the tributary running towards Clapham Road is a gesture of hardy sunflowers.
So I began, unpremeditated, a series of walks through those odd, unreal, summer days while I attempted to connect Van Gogh’s English addresses. Surviving houses and chapels, in the end, feel less significant than the movement between them, when weather and light and random encounters effect an interweaving in the strands of time. Tate Britain both is and is not the panopticon prison of Millbank. The distance between Hackford Road and Southampton Street, or Isleworth and the City of London, doesn’t change, but everything else along the way does. Only in certain moments, catching breath, do we experience the illusion of understanding what Van Gogh felt and saw.
‘I used to pass Westminster Bridge every morning and every evening,’ Vincent wrote, ‘and know how it looks when the sun sets behind Westminster Abbe y.’ The bridge has its barriers now, its security negotiations, before I reach unchanging Whitehall and a detour to the National Gallery, where Sunflowers 1888, painted for the Yellow House in Arles, has become a major marketing device. You can’t approach the picture for the blizzard of raised phones. The image is flattened, multiplied and miniaturised a thousand times.
Dispatched from the school on Twickenham Road in
Isleworth to collect money due to his employer, Thomas SladeJones, in the City, Vincent tramped the Thames like Bradley Headstone, the pinched schoolmaster-stalker from Our Mutual Friend. ‘The suburbs of London have a peculiar charm, between little houses and gardens are open spots covered with grass and generally with a church or school or workhouse in the middle between the trees and shrubs.’ Van Gogh was struck, when he read John Forster’s Life of Dickens (1872), by how the great writer had meditated while on the move, hatching ‘serious plans’ as he headed out into the country.
‘Syon Park grants the tolerated passerine a glimpse of long, shaded avenues, figures retreating or advancing, ghosts from earlier times. Vincent was captivated by that motif, poplars framing a road at sunset, shadow bars trapping solitary walkers.’
In Isleworth, under the Heathrow flight path, the library is closed, but a useful leaflet on ‘10 Steps to an Active You’ explains how ‘brisk walking can reduce your risk of long-term health conditions like heart disease and cancer’. The blue plaque on the red-brick house across the road offers ‘flexible terms’ for ‘serviced offices’ and boasts that ‘Vincent van Gogh, the famous painter, lived here in 1876’. But of course he didn’t: Vincent was obscure, isolated, estranged – and he wasn’t yet a painte r.
Syon Park grants the tolerated passerine a glimpse of long, shaded avenues, figures retreating or advancing, ghosts from earlier times. Vincent was captivated by that motif, poplars framing a road at sunset, shadow bars trapping solitary walkers. Beside the Thames, at Strand on the Green, I photographed the beautifully kept ‘Dutch House’. A notice announced classes in St Michael’s Church at £90 for three sessions: ‘All about Drawing – for adults.’
Not knowing the precise route the novice preacher took, I came away from the Thames at Hammersmith Bridge and cut across the chain of Royal Parks. And I made my own destination in the City, the Austin Friars church that Vincent is known to have sketched on one of his excursions from Isleworth. ‘The Dutch Reformed Parish has held gatherings here’, he wrote on his drawing. Accessible still by a white-tiled passage with notices for ‘Stock & Share Brokers’, the church is dwarfed by indifferent and unrelated towers.
It was by accident that I found myself on the shared road of Van Gogh’s longest, most driven English walk. We coincided at Canterbury: he had come from his unpaid employment at the school in Royal Road, Ramsgate and I was tracking Watling Street from Dover to London. Buffeted by traffic on
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