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