Van Gogh was here

Dear Theo,

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. It is a long high tunnel of arches. The walls are hung with many pictures, revealed by shafts of sunlight from the clever design of windows in the roofs. The sun moves overhead and creates shifting sensational patterns on the walls. I attempted a little drawing which I have not enclosed, being unable to render the shapes of anything worthy to publicise, even for you, my dear brother.

Alas there was not a single Millet or a Delacroix, but I discovered a wonderful Grimou of a young woman painted with great vigour in masterful strokes. Rembrandt,  forever sublime, and Ruysdael were both there to be seen and admired. A nice little Mazo, and some beautiful paintings by Tenniers made the long walk from Lambeth all the more worthwhile.

And Theo lad, our visit was graced by the presence of celebrity. The distinguished writer Mr. Thomas Carlisle happened to be visiting the museum on this day. I shadowed his private tour hoping for enlightenment from his report. However he seemed melancholic and offered no opinion, a reticence made more remarkable by comparison to the outspokenness of his companion. This other man seemed to revel in belittling both the pictures and their makers, possibly with the hope of impressing his older friend. So coarse was his manner, my good companion was compelled to enquire of his name and standing from the Museum Keeper. We were told he was Professor John Ruskin, Teacher in Art at the College in Oxford, and a writer of several monologues of distinction.

Still, I found him a crass individual, and this only emphasised my respect for Mr. Carlisle, whose manner in the matter of viewing pictures I could only hope to emulate. Mr. Ruskin’s remark on the fine Murillos was particularly scathing, claiming them to be dark and contrived, with little truth contained within them. He appeared to find brief solace in Poussin’s designs but frankly he left me thinking he had no great regard for anything or anyone beyond that of his own skin. I think he found the very fabric and design of the museum well below his precious and superior perception of rightness.

But dear brother I didn’t let this occurrence impair our otherwise pleasant outing. With ample daylight remaining, we walked over the hill to the village of Sidnam, through fields recently cleared and under the shaded branches of the Great North Wood, and on crossing the railway, found welcoming refreshment in The Dolphin Inn. The cold game-pie was very rich but left us in good humour and fortified for our walk back to London.

Your Brother, Vincent.

NB: I have massaged the history a bit here. But it might have happened, who knows?  He certainly did go to Dulwich Picture Gallery, his name is in the visitors’ book.

Rod Baxter 2011

Van Gogh’s ‘Self Portrait with Felt Hat’ is on loan from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam and is on display at Dulwich Picture Gallery as part of the Masterpiece a Month exhibition until 4 September 2011. For more information and to book tickets click here.

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