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Vincent Van Gogh in Britain

If you have not visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam then Van Gogh in Britain at the Tate Britain is a chance to see the selected works of one of the world’s most gifted artists. The exhibition covers the time frame that Van Gogh spent living and working in England, firstly taking the wholesale orders of art prints, packing and despatching them for the Dutch art dealers Goupil. 

During 1873-76 Van Gogh learns about art at the warehouse and visits the Royal Academy Summer exhibitions where he admires the work of John Everett Millais and John Constable. Exposed to life in Victorian London, he buys a top hat and becomes a fan of the hand engraved woodblocks made by the “Black and White Illustrators” in The Graphic and the Illustrated London News. He later buys 21 volumes of The Graphic, almost the complete run from 1869-80 and allows the lines and marks of the engraver Gustave Dore to influence his own work.




Prisoners Exercising in the yardVan Gogh brief spell of financial stability would not last. Quotes from his letters writ large on the gallery walls are testaments to Van Gogh’s life in “a prison of poverty” which he illustrates by putting himself in his painting Exercise In The Prison Courtyard (1890). He explains his emptiness in one of the many letters to his brother Theo, the only constant support in his short life, “You may not always be able to say what confines you ….and then you ask yourself, Dear God, is this for long, is this for ever, is this for eternity.” I shed tears reading Vincent’s description of visiting a doctor seeking help for the negative impact that poverty was having upon his health.

A Pair of Boots (1886) evoke the national identity of the artist, but they also encapsulate the rigours of his life. In his book, Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, first published1914, Van Gogh documents the daily toil of his walks, not only around Holland, but from his home in Brixton to work in Covent Garden, and from London to Essex and around the Kent Coast in search of work and subjects to paint. His quest was to become a painter of the people for the people. 

 And his most striking portraits are ordinary people slumped or sitting with head in hands: At Eternity’s Gate, (1890), Woman Mourning (1882) and Sorrow (1892) all conjuring up the desperation of life. The sitters have nowhere to hide and no numbing distractions. It's apparent from the quality of colour, composition and mark-making of these emotion fuelled watercolours and drawings that somewhere on his journey Van Gogh has become a master.  


VG-Boots-Sorry-Eternities Gate


Trees and Flowers

Trees and flowers recur in Van Gogh’s work and through the paintings of Pollarded Willows and Setting Sun (1888), and Trees in the Garden of the Hospital of St Paul (1888) we get glimpses into the corners of his private world. Much maligned in life and misunderstood as being mad rather than ill or possibly an epileptic, Van Gogh sought refuge and found a form of peace within the asylum garden at Saint-Paul in St Remy de Provence.

In addition to streaks of cypresses, almond blossoms, poplars, olive groves and pines, there are flowers. The Sunflowers (1888) appears on loan from The National Gallery and works by Augustus John, Matthew Smith and Jacob Epstein show how other artists see trees and flowers. These natural forms contrast starkly with the gritty social realism of The Public Soup Kitchen (1883), and depictions of abandoned mothers, miners, flower girls, worn out shirt menders, and Van Gogh’s pregnant and destitute model, Sien Hoornick, as depicted in Sorrow.

Starry Night and the Colour Yellow

There is also something moving about Starry Night On the Rhone, Arles 1880. I broke into a sudden sweat in front of the large painting in the cool, air-conditioned ambience of the gallery. Despite the mundane scene, a distinctly other-worldly quality pervades this canvas. A couple stand arm-in-arm in the foreground as two fishing boats bob up and down behind them. The arc of the town lights of Arles at night in the distance is lit by Vincent’s luminous yellow lights that reflect across the water. A rich indigo sky is dotted with yellow stars encased in slightly sickly green orbs.  



There are at least a dozen scientific papers discussing Van Gogh obsession with the colour yellow And, there is evidence to suggest that his doctor in Arles, Dr Paul Gachet, was treating him with an extract of the foxglove plant or digitalis purpurea. Dr Gachet wrote about his use of digitoxin as a treatment for epilepsy and mania. And, Van Gogh painted several portraits of the good doctor, one with a vase of foxgloves next to his benign yellow face. However, medical experts reckon that Van Gogh was never treated long enough with any medications to cause Xanthopsia, the condition of seeing bright yellow.  

Places changed and unchanged

Van Gogh paintings of Arles reveal to me that this Provençal town has changed little in the last 140 years. On my own pilgrimage to Arles some years ago, I find the Pont de Langlois painted and drawn many times by Van Gogh. Bombed during the war, the bridge was rebuilt and relocated over the Bouc canal just a few thousand metres from its' original position. Nearby, an expanse of wheat fields are shimmering in the scorching heat, just as in the 1880’s, a windmill stands idle in the distance. In the town his Bedroom in Arles (1888) in the Yellow House is open to the public. 

Van Gogh’s Bleachery at Scheveningen (1882) shows the changes wrought at the seaside town of Sheveningen in the Hague. Now the high-rise buildings, bars, a towering Bungy Jump and a Ferris Wheel overshadow what was a grassy shore where women gathered bleaching sheets. Van Gogh’s spontaneous watercolour landscapes provide an historically important record of the the town’s development. 


Vincent Van Gogh died in Arles aged thirty-seven in 1890. It is thought that he took his own life. Six months later his brother Theo would follow aged thirty-three from an illness. Theo’s widow, Johanna Bonger-Van Gogh, who had just given birth to his son, painstakingly curated over 1800 of Vincent’s paintings and drawings, also translating Vincent and Theo’s letters into English. Her efforts make up the bulk of the Van Gogh Museum’s collection today. She was instrumental in promoting the life and work of the artist, whose struggles and genius are unstoppably embedded into the cultural psych, and rightly so. 


 The EY Exhibition Van Gogh at Tate Britain runs from 27th March-11 August 2019

Picture Editor: Andy Watton