Van Gogh loved this picture by Meindert Hobbema, The Avenue at Middleharnis, which he would have been able to see at London’s National Gallery, depicting a solitary figure on a long straight avenue flanked by trees. He would utilise a similar setting for his Avenue of Poplars in Autumn years later. And in 1957, Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh IV homaged the scene by depicting Van Gogh’s hunched figure walking alone in the countryside. The Avenue at Middelharnis | 1689 | Oil paint on canvas | 1035x1410mm | © The National Gallery, London

Under English Skies

5th April 2019

A new exhibition at Tate Britain is the first to take a look at relationship of fiery Post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh
with this country. Jack Watkins offers an overview…

Towards the end of Tate Britain’s new exhibition on Vincent Van Gogh, there’s a clip from Vincent Minnelli’s 1956 biopic Lust For Life. Kirk Douglas, in one of his best performances, certainly captured Van Gogh’s manic intensity (“up at dawn and out on the road”), and the hothouse heat and vibrancy of southern France conveyed in Hollywood Technicolour are those we associate with the artist’s most striking works.

We don’t exactly connect him with grey, rainy old England, or the fog and gas lights of Victorian London, yet it turns out Van Gogh was a keen anglophile, having a lifelong love for the place that lasted well beyond the three years he spent here in the 1870s. Just twenty when he arrived in the capital in the spring of 1873, he was soon writing letters to his art dealer brother Theo enthusing ‘I love London’. For a couple of years he worked – not very successfully – in an office in Covent Garden. His lodgings being south of the river, he’d travel in by boat or via the underground, but he was also a keen walker. “…How often I would stand on the Thames Embankment and draw as I made my way home from Southampton Street in the evenings,” he’d later recall.

Van Gogh’s affectation for this country’s culture was such that he’d seek out and amass a collection of over 2,000 engravings, mostly culled from English magazines like the Illustrated London News. His shelves were filled with the novels of Charles Dickens and George Eliot. These had more reality in them, he argued, than reality itself. The first painting in the show, the portrait L’Arlesienne, one of a series he did of the Arles café owner towards the end of his life, is there because his copy of Dickens’s Christmas Stories is depicted on the table. “My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes,” he said.

Van Gogh only produced one image of London (which is, as you’d expect, in the exhibition): Prisoners Exercising, taken from a print by Gustave Doré of the inmates of Newgate Prison, painted during the final months of his life while he was in hospital. Nevertheless, the show’s aim is to demonstrate how Van Gogh was inspired by British art, literature and culture, and how he in turn inspired a range of British artists, from members of the Bloomsbury group to Frances Bacon.

This sometimes makes for a disjointed flow and some awkward juxtapositions. George Henry Boughton’s God Speed! Pilgrims Setting out for Canterbury apparently inspired some of Van Gogh’s work, but it’s a pretty standard Victorian narrative painting that sits uneasily with the output of the Post-Impressionist master. You would have to have a heart of stone not to be stirred by John Everett Millais’s Chill October, a painting, if ever there was one, to banish forever any notion that Millais was “just another of those Pre-Raphaelites.” It’s a staggeringly atmospheric masterpiece that launched his later career as a landscape artist and Van Gogh was apparently entranced by it when he saw it, probably at Christie’s in 1875. Its wide viewpoint influenced many of the Dutchman’s landscapes but it and, next to it, John Constable’s The Valley Farm, are works of such depth and grandeur that Van Gogh, so stylistically different, seems diminished in their presence.

Still Van Gogh was a great observer of outdoor life in his own right. “Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better. Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see,” he opined. As his mood turned melancholy, however, so too did his paintings. He loved the picture by Meindert Hobbema, The Avenue at Middleharnis, which he would have been able to see at London’s National Gallery, depicting a solitary figure on a long straight avenue flanked by trees. He would utilise a similar setting for his Avenue of Poplars in Autumn years later. And in 1957, Francis Bacon’s Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh IV homaged the scene by depicting Van Gogh’s hunched figure walking alone in the countryside.

As a struggling young artist Van Gogh had written of the ‘prison’ of poverty and social prejudice that had prevented him from becoming the painter he wanted to be. While in London, with industry and all the accompanying squalor and poverty that went with it closer at hand then than it is now, Van Gogh became keenly aware of the plight of the poor. Instinctively, he identified with the downtrodden. He drew much strength from the descriptions of the poor in the writing of Dickens, and this continued when, back in the Netherlands, he produced a powerful oil painting Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate), showing a figure seated, head in his hands, the image of despair. As a matter of interest, London artist Luke Fildes’ engraving The Empty Chair which captured the sense of shock felt across the land at the death of Dickens, aged 58, in 1870, is also in the exhibition.

Van Gogh may have loved England, yet for a time he was viewed with disdain here. In 1910, the London exhibition Manet and The Post-Impressionists drew much criticism for its inclusion of Van Gogh’s work, because of feelings at the time about his behaviour, and the prejudice and misunderstandings of the day surrounding mental illness. Even so, as the archetypal artist as loner-outsider type, Van Gogh became a hero and an inspiration to a new generation of British artists, and later sections of the exhibition examine this impact though numerous examples.

Not the least of those enthused and inspired by Van Gogh was the Camden Town Group, which featured among its unconventional members the likes of Walter Sickert, Spencer Gore and Frank Gilman. The latter kept a print of a Van Gogh self-portrait on his studio wall. Each morning before he started work Gilman would wave a salutary brush in the direction of the picture and shout “A toi, Van Gogh!” (or, in plain English, “Cheers, Van Gogh!”). Sickert’s The Juvenile Lead (Self Portrait), with its outsider overtones, and one by Spencer Gore, are clear nods to the loner legacy of Van Gogh. Meanwhile, Harold Gilman’s painting of a tree In Gloucestershire, executed in 1916 on a trip out of London to explore the countryside, shares the deepened use of colour of Van Gogh’s lovely Horse Chestnut Tree in Blossom, painted almost forty years earlier. Van Gogh’s series of Sunflower paintings even contributed to a revival of flower painting among modern British artists.
There are some fine paintings here, including Starry Night and the very famous Self-Portrait of 1889, enough for fans of the artist to feel satisfied. For those interested in some lesser known British artists, too, there is much of interest in an intriguing show.

Van Gogh and Britain is at Tate Britain until 11 August 2019

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