Art review: Van Gogh and Britain at Tate Britain

by
12 April 2019

Nicholas Cranfield on the mutual feelings of Van Gogh and Britain

collection krÖller-müller museum, otterlo

Sorrowing Old Man (“At Eternity’s Gate”), 1890, by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)

Sorrowing Old Man (“At Eternity’s Gate”), 1890, by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)

THIS exhibition traces the effect that England had on Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) when he lived and worked here in his early twenties, from 1873 until the year end 1876, first as a clerk and then briefly as a schoolteacher and lay minister. The second part covers his posthumous influence on British artists, particularly after the 1925 Grafton Gallery show of Post-Impressionists and a December 1947 retrospective at the Tate, for which people who were more used to queueing for rationing tailed along Millbank.

He never painted while he lived in England, in Lambeth, and, after a brief spell back on the Continent, then in Ramsgate; nor when he briefly returned to London as an assistant Methodist preacher.

© the pushkin state museum of fine arts, moscowThe Prison Courtyard, 1890, by Vincent Van Gogh, on loan from Moscow to the Tate

Despite all the press hype, this is not a blockbuster show. Just 28 oil paintings by the artist (including three self-portraits and the National Gallery’s Sunflowers, as well as Starry Night from Paris), a handful of watercolours, etchings, and drawings, with facsimiles of some of his voluminous correspondence, are displayed.

Van Gogh was a troubled and somewhat taciturn youth. Leaving school, he was taken on as a clerk by an art dealer at the Goupil Art Gallery in The Hague. He did well enough to be posted to the firm’s London branch at the age of 20, which afforded him his first chance to see British art.

In the National Gallery, he was much taken by the recently acquired Hobbema, The Avenue at Middelharnis (1689), which must have reminded him of home, and in the South Kensington Museum by Constable’s 1835 Valley Farm. When he visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery (4 August 1873) with a friend, he still gave The Hague as his address; the guest book does not name his companion.

He read widely in English; Shakespeare, of course, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and John Keats, Paul Bunyan and Lord Lytton. He admired Thomas Carlyle greatly and owned his edition of Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches; “‘Blessed is he who has found his work,’ says Carlyle, and that’s absolutely true. . . I want to make figures from the people for the people.”

Only in 1880 did he become a serious artist, beginning to paint as fervently as he had preached, but with rather more immediate results. To uncover his life in England, we have to rely on his correspondence (more than 900 letters), which, like his later art (at least 800 pictures), was prolific.

When he was living out in Isleworth, he visited the Lewisham family of Harry Gladwell, whom he knew from Paris, and, in August 1876, he reported a tragedy that had overtaken his family. Harry’s 17-year-old sister had been out riding on Blackheath when she fell; she died five days later.

© the estate of francis bacon. all rights reserved. DACS, LondonStudy for a Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh IV, 1957, by Francis Bacon (1909-92)

In November in the same year, he wrote that he was still doing some work for Henry Gladwell senior. The previous Sunday, he had gone to Petersham Church and the chapel at Turnham Green to preach; pen sketches of both places appear at the end of the letter.

Despite his initial enthusiasm for the capital, he later recalled, “I often felt low in England . . . but the Black and White and Dickens, are things that make up for it all.” By “Black and White” he meant newspaper engravings, of which he culled an enormous number from The Illustrated London News and The Graphic, whose social conscience he shared.

This monochrome view of an impoverished urban life, recorded by the likes of Frank Holl and E. G. Dalziel, became his bread and butter. It forms the backdrop to the middle section of this eclectic show, which ends with all guns blazing: three staggering canvases by Francis Bacon, two of them studies for a portrait of Van Gogh (numbers IV and VI) and, also painted in 1957, his Van Gogh in a Landscape (Centre Pompidou, Paris).

But by then, on the day that I went, the paying public had already given up really looking, as if to say they had not come to see works by the likes of Harold Gilman, David Bomberg (the self-portrait of 1932), Frank Brangwyn, or Samuel J. Peploe. Even the curator’s eye may have failed momentarily, claiming that the chair, the shutters, wash stand, and “bed at an angle” in Christopher Wood’s 1930 Nude in a Bedroom are similar to Van Gogh’s famous scene of his bedroom: look again.
 

“Van Gogh and Britain” is at Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1, until 11 August. Phone 020 7887 8888. www.tate.org.uk

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