by Roderick Conway Morris

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Van Gogh in Britain

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 5 April 2019
Pushkin State Museum of Fin Arts, Moscow
The Prison Courtyard by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890



Vincent Van Gogh arrived in London in 1873, at the age of 20, to work as a junior employee at the art dealers Goupil in Covent Garden. He had no thoughts of becoming a painter at that time. Yet during his four-year stay, in the words of Louis van Tilborgh, the Dutch expert on the artist, 'the Van Gogh we know was being born in London.'

This crucial period is the subject of the first part of a fascinating exhibition, Van Gogh in Britain, the first major show devoted to the artist to be held in this country for over 70 years. The second part of the show explores the powerful impact that Van Gogh's works had on late 19th and 20th century British artists.

The young Vincent found lodgings in South London and commuted, usually on foot, from there to Goupil's. He plunged himself enthusiastically into the life, art and literature of the city. Gustave Doré's 'London: A Pilgrimage', containing 180 extraordinary engravings, many of them of the city's poor, its underworld and urban squalor, had been published just the year before. Although he could not afford to buy the whole volume, Vincent bought many prints from it. Goupil's London branch dealt mainly in reproductions and he took up every opportunity to build up his own collection, eventually amassing some 2,000, almost all of them British. He also read scores of English books, admiring Dickens in particular for his characters drawn from every echelon of society and for his vividly visual style of writing.

It was not until 1880 that, at the suggestion of his brother Theo, Van Gogh decided to try to become an artist, but his subject matter was always to remain profoundly influenced by the legacy of his time in London. Two Luke Fildes's engravings here - one of Dicken's 'Empty Chair' and another for 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood', published after the author's death - clearly inspired the Dutch artist's Van Gogh's 'Empty Chair' and 'Gauguin's Chair'; and his painting 'The Prison Courtyard' (on loan from Moscow), is taken directly from a DorÉ engraving of Newgate, shown alongside it.

In Paris, Vincent met the Scottish dealer Alexander Reid, who bought the artist some apples that had caught Van Gogh's eye. He painted two still lifes of them, one of which he gave to Reid and the other to his painter friend Lucien Pissarro. Both recipients brought these pictures back to Britain, these being some of the first Van Gogh's to reach these shores. Reid also gave Vincent a 'Vase with Flowers' by Adolphe Monticelli (on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam), an artist whose canvases the Scotsman was successfully marketing in Britain and the US. This in due course not only inspired Van Gogh to paint his own still lifes of sunflowers but, since Monticelli had his studio in Marseilles, it nurtured in him the idea of going to Provence to establish his own 'Studio of the South'.

One of the first artists from the British Isles to be influenced by Van Gogh was the Irish-born Roderic O'Connor, whose works 'Still Life with Apples and Yellow Landscape' (from the Tate collection) are palpably based on pictures by Vincent that O'Connor had seen at the Salon des IndÉpendants in Paris, in 1880. But it was not until Roger Fry's landmark London exhibition of 1910, 'Manet and the Post-Impressionists' - which included 27 Van Gogh canvases - that a large number of British artists fell under the Dutchman's spell.

Van Gogh's influence was given a further boost when the National Gallery, Millbank (now Tate Britain) acquired 'Sunflowers' in 1924. Transferred to Trafalgar Square in 1961, it returns to Tate Britain for the duration of this exhibition. The effect of this single work on the 20th-century British art scene was little short of astonishing.

As works here by Frank Bragwyn, Matthew Smith, Samuel Peploe, Jacob Epstein, William and Winifred Nicholson and Christopher Wood demonstrate, its audacious avant-garde style emboldened a host of British modernists to embrace a genre that had come to be regarded as traditional and bourgeois. And perhaps even more than Cézanne, Van Gogh put Provence on the map for British artists. Augustus John was one of the first to go there, followed by Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Matthew Smith.

Van Gogh painted 36 self-portraits during his lifetime, three of them on display here. These also made their mark on British art, as works by Walter Sickert (an early champion of the Dutch artist), Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman illustrate. Vincent's 'Self-Portrait' (1887) figured in his first solo exhibition in London in 1923, but attempts to buy it for the nation were unsuccessful (it is on loan here from Paris). The artist's last few months were the most productive of his career, before he shot himself in the chest, dying two days later in July 1890. Two of his very last pieces 'The Oise at Auvers' and 'Farms near Auvers', both infused with a strange sense of calm, draw this memorable exhibition to a close on an elegiac pastoral note.

Van Gogh in Britain; Tate Britain; 27 March - 11 August 2019

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024