Vincent Van Gogh spent a year in London between 1873 and 1874 during which time he began writing his famous letters to his brother, Theo, due to their sudden distance from each other. He was only 20 and had recently left home to work at Goupil and Company, an Art Dealers in Covent Garden, at 17 Southampton Street (3 on the map), where his starting salary was higher than that of his 51-year-old father’s Dutch. He was lodging at 87 Hackford Road in Stockwell with mother and daughter, Ursula and Eugenie Loyer.
The London that Van Gogh moved to was one newly lit by streetlights, powered by electricity and relied on industrial power. This signalled many changes in modern life, and very significantly for Van Gogh, allowed for safe and easy walking at night. Van Gogh was a valiant walker and advised his little brother by letter to ‘Always continue walking a lot and loving nature for that’s the real way to understand art better and better.’
Van Gogh’s understanding of the psychological and spiritual utility of walking was informed by his deep appreciation of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (sometimes called the first English novel), an allegory of a man who must travel on a path filled with many obstacles that test his faith in the Christian God.
The walk that Van Gogh completed twice a day, between his residence and his workplace takes 45 minutes, and to this day delivers an interesting cross-section of the scenery London had to offer. Near point 1 on the map one can see the remains of the The Pilgrimage of Life Fountain in Kennington Park. The creation of George Tinworth, the resident sculptor at Doulton’s Lambeth factory, it once was crowned with a sculpture of a man carrying a cross with a woman and a child. The fountain was erected the year before Van Gogh arrived in London, 1872, and perhaps Van Gogh would have thought of Bunyan’s progress, his own and that of these figures when walking past. The sculpture was damaged irreparably during the blitz, and only the base column now remains. At point 2 on the map, Van Gogh would have been able to see the palace of Westminster and Lambeth palace, as well as St Mary’s Church is now the Museum of Garden History (well worth a visit). He often crossed Westminster Bridge, from which vantage point he once did a sketch, walked on past the National Gallery and on to his place of work.
Van Gogh retained an affection for London and English culture, and though he did not paint while he was in London, a sketchbook does exist of his time here. He became familiar with, and admired many English painters through his dealings, and discovered English authors such as John Bunyan, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Christina Rossetti, who remained a constant source of inspiration. ‘My whole life,’ he once wrote, ‘is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes.’