Cover of Gustave Doré and Blanchard Jerrold’s London: A Pilgrimage, published in 1872, a year before Van Gogh’s arrival in the city
Gustave Doré’s engraving NewgateExercise Yard, a plate from London: A Pilgrimage the unforgiving stretch between Faversham and Gillingham, I envied Vincent the ride he caught on a cart, leaving it only when the carrier settled in a public house.
No sooner in Lewisham than the restless visionary was off again, rising before first light to tramp to Welwyn where his sister was employed as a teacher. I followed him on the day that rain returned after those parched months. Passing the Poor Clare Monastery beyond High Barnet I thought of the other inextinguishable figure of the Great North Road: the poet John Clare. Poor John. Now drenched, ditched by an endless stream of commuters, reps and white vans dodging in and out of the motorway system, I empathised with Clare’s delirious account of his ‘Journey Out of Essex’, the four-day trudge from Epping Forest to the new cottage in Northborough, where he would be ‘homeless at home’. Clare’s urgent report reads like a one-breath confession, spontaneous and uncensored. Van Gogh’s London letters can be set beside Clare’s as announcing the coming era of ‘mad walkers’, fugue walkers and deep topographers. Looking at Prisoners Exercising (after Doré), painted in Saint-Rémy in 1890, I think of Clare in the Northampton asylum and the despairing abdication of the sonnet, ‘I am’: ‘And plod upon the earth, as dull and void: / Earth’s prison chilled my body with its dram / Of dullness’.
Drawing on the Doré print from London: A Pilgrimage, Van Gogh has one man turn to confront us, his accusers. Perhaps this is indeed a self-portrait: the pre-traumatic face of the faceless man from the road to Tarascon. The position of the troubled walker’s stride is identical in both paintings. The pilgrim is doomed to tramp on, as if caught in the circuit of the stars, only to arrive back where he started.
TheEYExhibition:VanGoghandBritain, Tate Britain, 27 March – 11 August, curated by Carol Jacobi, Curator British Art 1850–1915, Tate and Chris Stephens, Director, Holburne Museum, Bath with van Gogh specialist Martin Bailey and Hattie Spires, Assistant Curator Modern British Art, Tate. The exhibition is part of The EY Tate Arts Partnership, with additional support from the Van Gogh Exhibition Supporters Circle and Tate Members. Iain Sinclair is a writer and filmmaker, and a compulsive London walker. His latest book, LivingwithBuildings, is published by Wellcome Collection and road tests the thesis that staying on the move delays mortality.
80 TATE ETC. ISSUE 45 MIDDLE