Most people in St. Margarets already know that Vincent van Gogh was once a near neighbour of ours. It is heartening to see that “the greatest painter who ever lived” has conquered time and space and is now fighting aliens with Dr. Who and his travelling companion Amy Pond (mmmmmm - Amy Pond!).
Starry, starry night. Paint your palette blue and grey, Look out on a summer’s day, With eyes that know the darkness in my soul. Shadows on the hills, Sketch the trees and the daffodils, Catch the breeze and the winter chills, In colors on the snowy linen land.
“Vincent” by Don McLean
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on 30 March 1853 in Groot-Zundert, a village in the province of North Brabant in the southern Netherlands. He was the son of Anna Cornelia Carbentus and Theodorus van Gogh, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. As a child he suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression. As a result he had a miserable childhood as he revealed in a letter to his brother Theo in 1883…
“My youth was gloomy and cold and sterile under the influence of the rayon noir (black ray?)…..After all, I will reproach nobody but myself with it - yet the rayon noir is unutterably cruel - unutterably - And at this moment I feel within myself as many repressed tears as there are in a figure by Monteyne!”
In June 1873, after training as an art dealer he took a job with Messrs. Goupil & Co., at 17 Southampton Street in London. This was a good period for him. He was successful at work and although only 20 years old was already earning more than his father. However when he fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, Eugénie Loyer, and told her how he felt she rejected him. Becoming increasingly isolated and obsessed about religion he took up a new position with an art dealer in Paris. However, he became resentful at how art was treated as a commodity and on 1 April 1876, his employment was terminated.
On April 14th 1876 he returned to England as a teacher in a small boarding school in Ramsgate run by Mr William Stokes. Although it was an unpaid job Vincent felt that he might have found his vocation, as he wrote to his brother, Theo…
“Mr Stokes says he definitely cannot give me a salary, for he can get plenty of people who’ll work for board and lodging alone, which is certainly true. But can that be kept up for long? I’m afraid not; it will be decided soon enough.
But, old boy, no matter what the case, I think I can tell you this again, that these couple of months have bound me so closely to the sphere ranging from schoolmaster to clergyman, both through satisfactions associated with those situations and through thorns that have pricked me, that I can no longer turn back.”
In June 1876 Stokes moved his school from Ramsgate to Linkfield House, 183 Twickenham Road in Isleworth. Clearly Stokes wasn’t too impressed by Vincent and made no arrangements for him to come to Isleworth - so Vincent walked the journey, taking 3 days to do so. On July 3rd, when he realised that Stokes was definitely not going to pay him, Vincent took a job next door at Holme Court, 158 Twickenham Road, a Methodist school run by Reverend Thomas Slade-Jones. According to his sister-in-law, Van Gogh “seemed to become intoxicated with the sweet, melodious words of the English texts and hymns, the romantic charm of the little village church, and the lovely, holy atmosphere that enveloped the English service.”
Religion was becoming increasingly important in his life with Vincent experiencing the need “to preach the gospel everywhere”. On October 29th he gave his first sermon at Richmond Methodist Church, taking as his text Psalm 119: 19. `I am a stranger on the earth, hide not Thy commandments from me.’…
“It is an old belief and it is a good belief, that our life is a pilgrim’s progress - that we are strangers on the earth, but that though this be so, yet we are not alone for our Father is with us. We are pilgrims, our life is a long walk or journey from earth to Heaven.”
from Vincent’s Sermon in Richmond - Oct 29th 1876
His letters from Isleworth to Theo suggest that Vincent had found some contentment in his life…
Isleworth, 18 August 1876
From the train the view of London was beautiful, squatting in its gloom, with Saint Paul’s and the other churches in the distance. I went by train to Richmond, and by foot to Isleworth, along the Thames. A fine walk. To the left, there are parks with their poplars, their oaks and gigantic elms; to the right, the river which reflects their images. The evening is fine, somewhat solemn. I got back home at quarter past ten.
Isleworth, 24 October 1876
It has been very beautiful here lately, especially the streets in the evening when it is more or less hazy and the lamps are lit, and also in the park which I wrote you about. A few days ago I saw the sun setting there behind the elm trees with their bronze-coloured leaves. Over the grass was that haze which Anna wrote about, and the brook which the swans swim in runs through the park. The acacia trees in the playground have almost lost their leaves; I see them through the window in front of my desk - sometimes they stand out dark against the sky, sometimes I see the sun rise red in the mist behind them. It will soon be winter now; I am so glad Christmas comes in winter - that’s why I like winter best of all the seasons.
Vincent also found some comfort in the proximity of the Thames and a possible link with home…
How delightful it will be to sail down the Thames and across the sea, and see those friendly Dutch dunes and the church spire that is visible from so very far away.
How little we see of each other and how little we see of our parents, and yet the family feeling and our love for each other is so strong that the heart is uplifted and the eye turns to God and prays, “Do not let me stray too far from them, not too long, O Lord.”
At Christmas 1876 Vincent returned home and started painting. He never came back to England. Troubled by ever increasing mental illness and often short of money Vincent van Gogh’s talents were never recognised in his own lifetime. On 27 July 1890, aged 37, he walked into a field and shot himself in the chest with a revolver. Two days later he died. His brother Theo reported that Vincent’s last words as “La tristesse durera toujours” (the sadness will last forever).
In 1891 Holme Court, the school on Twickenham Road run by Rev. Slade-Jones was sold to the Chiswick and Heston Schools Board and turned into a Truant Industrial School. The land in front of the school was bought by compulsory purchase for £675 by the London United Tramways Company in order to widen the road for tramlines.
During its first 10 years the Truant School, charging 7 shillings a week per boy made a profit of £2087. It finally closed on the 15th April 1920. The only sign that Vincent van Gogh ever lived there is a small blue plaque outside.
Vincent van Gogh is long gone - but those of us who live in St Margarets are privileged to walk where he once walked and to see what he once saw. Perhaps if we put aside for a moment the distractions of our busy lives, we might just discover something of the beauty that soothed his troubled mind.
Enjoy “Vincent” by Don McLean and some of van Gogh’s paintings.
Now I think I know what you tried to say to me, How you suffered for your sanity, How you tried to set them free. They would not listen, they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will…
“Vincent” By Don McLean
One of the often repeated facts about van Gogh is he cut off one of his ears. In 1948 our own local historian G.W Bate gave two accounts of what may have happened. The first comes under the category of “giving a lady what she wants.” It seems that Vincent took a fancy to a lady living in Arles. One day she playfully tugged his ear and said “You must give me one of your big ears!”. Soon after she received a packet, inside of which was one of van Gogh’s ears.
The other account is that he had a fierce argument with his friend Gauguin and threatened him with a knife. Afterwards, feeling guilty and remorseful, Vincent cut off one of his own ears in an act of repentance. I am sure that modern scholarship has settled this matter - but whatever the truth both accounts suggest that van Gogh was a very disturbed man.
– from Martyn Day