A Trip Back In Time With Vincent van Gogh

What was south London like in 1873?

You perhaps wouldn’t think it, but the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh can offer us a few clues.

When you think of van Gogh (1853–90), you think of an eccentric painter, famous for cutting off chunks of his own facial features and painting stunning pictures of sunflowers.

But did you know he also spent some time living in London?

Self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh (1889) on display in the Musée d'Orsay

Self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh (1889) on display in the Musée d

In 1869, aged just fifteen, Vincent’s uncle (also called Vincent) found him a job in The Hague with the art dealer Goupil & Cie. By mid-1873 he’d completed his training and was sent to work for the London branch of the company on Southampton Street (just off the Strand).

Young Vincent took lodgings in Hackford Road, Brixton. He was earning a decent wage and, of course, managed to get himself into some mischief with local young ladies. But in between all this he was writing regular letters back to Holland, mostly to his brother Theo van Gogh.

Fortunately for us, these letters – and some others from his family archive – have been transcribed and are available online. I spent a merry afternoon reading through the lot and have selected the following extracts pertaining to our local area for enjoyment and amusement.

You’ll see from the quotes below that some things in London never change:

31 May 1873
From Rev van Gogh to Vincent’s brother Theo

Our Vincent wrote that he had bought a top hat; you cannot be in London without one … he has to be economical because of the high cost of living there.

02 July 1873
Vincent to a friend in The Hague about living in Brixton

The neighbourhood where I live is quite beautiful, and so quiet and intimate that you almost forget you are in London. In front of every house there is a small garden with flowers or a few trees, and many houses are built very tastefully in a sort of Gothic style.

20 July 1873
Vincent to brother Theo

I am quite contented here; I walk a lot and the neighbourhood where I live is quiet, pleasant and fresh.

At first English art did not appeal to me; one must get used to it … Constable was a landscape painter who lived about thirty years ago; he is splendid.

07 August 1873
Vincent writing to family friends in Holland

I have visited neither Crystal Palace nor the Tower yet … I am not in a hurry to see everything. For the present I am quite satisfied with the museums, parks, etc; they interest me more.

Last Monday I had a nice day. The first Monday in August is a holiday here. I went with one of the Germans to Dulwich, an hour and a half outside London, to see the museum there, and after that we took about an hour’s walk to another village.

The country is so beautiful here. Many people who have their businesses in London live in some village outside London and go to town by train every day; perhaps I shall do the same shortly, if I can find a cheap room somewhere. But moving is so horrible that I shall stop here as long as possible, although everything is not so beautiful as it seemed to me in the beginning. Perhaps it is my own fault, so I shall bear with it a little longer.

So, to answer my question about life in south London in 1873 – people wore top hats; every garden in Brixton had flowers and trees; Dulwich was a commuter-belt with a picture gallery and nobody enjoyed moving house. Now you know.

With thanks to WebExhibits and IDEA, who host the online version of all VanGogh’s personal letters. Translations into English by Vincent’s sister Johanna van Gogh-Bonger. Edited by Robert Harrison.

Image: with thanks to wally g (with CCL).


About this article

Steve Slack

About Steve Slack

Steve Slack is a writer and researcher based in East Dulwich. He’s most often to be found either in a museum or in the bar. Or even museums which have bars. Steve blogs about museums, galleries and all sorts of things at steveslack.co.uk.

13 Comments

  1. Bernie Victor 29 Aug 2008

    You can buy a facsimile of van Gogh’s signature from when he signed the visitors book at the gallery.

  2. Ian Dejardin 29 Aug 2008

    Incidentally, one of the reasons it took me so long to find the signature in the Visitors’ Book at Dulwich Picture Gallery – apart from Vincent’s appalling scrawl, that is – is because he signed ‘H V van Gogh’. A note in one of his early letters from London explains this: – he asks his correspondent to be sure to address letters to this version of his name so that there should be no confusion with this Uncle Vincent who was also in town. Mystery solved.

  3. Ian Dejardin 29 Aug 2008

    Correction – he of course signed H V van Gogh.

  4. Bernie Victor 29 Aug 2008

    Incidentally did anyone see a play that was on in London a few years ago giving a fictionalised version of his stay in London ?

    I think it was called ‘Van Gogh in London’

  5. ingrid 30 Aug 2008

    Yes, I saw it. It was at the National Theatre, I think. Very good, I thought.
    There is a cafe on Brixton Road called the Van Gogh cafe. Anyone been there? Is it any good? Is it themed to VG at all? Its next to, or maybe attached to a church.

  6. Steve Slack 2 Sep 2008

    We’ve uploaded an image of the signature Ian refers to above. It’s here: http://dulwichonview.org.uk/2008/09/02/more-van-gogh/

  7. Is there any record of the exact address or addresses where Van Gogh lived while in London? Would be curious to see his lodgings; where he lived in Paris, on Rue Lepic, is still there.

    • Van Gogh is known to have lodged with the Loyers at 87 Hackford Road in Brixton. He lived in three places during his time in London. Hackford Road was the second. His first lodgings he stayed with some convivial Germans but did not leave a record of the precise location. His last place was with the Parkers at Ivy Cottage on Kennington Road, London. The cottage is no more.

      I’ve written a walking tour of some of Van Gogh’s London haunts, if anyone is interested. It covers some of his places of work and lodging. It’s an iPhone/iPad walking tour via an app called Rama, available from iTunes.

      If you are interested in checking out this tour (which does cost) then have a look here: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/rama/id391888636?mt=8

  8. Steve Slack 21 Sep 2008
  9. Such a sad end to such a brilliant painter, enjoyed reading your post.

  10. Beano Bob 20 Jan 2010

    I once cut my ear while shaving. It hurt like buggery. I have every sympathy for Vince.

  11. Steve Byrne 28 Sep 2011

    It’s interesting to consider that Van Gogh was in London at the same time as the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. I wonder if they ever passed each other in the street?

  12. Chris Keeys 5 Aug 2012

    Recently discovered that my 6x great grandfather, John Edwards,lived at 211 Kennington Road in 1875. At the time he was a Queen’s Guard and would have worn a uniform similar to that worn by ‘beefeaters’ when he was required to attend at State ceremonies. Could they have passed in the street – I wonder!

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