Vincent van Gogh's 100-mile trip to Welwyn
PUBLISHED: 13:25 29 May 2018
Ahead of a Tate exhibition exploring Van Gogh's links with Britain, India Paine charts a little known fact - the artist's sister lived in Welwyn and Vincent walked 100 miles to visit
March 2019 will see the opening of a major exhibition at Tate Britain, bringing together the largest group of Van Gogh paintings shown in the UK for nearly a decade. Van Gogh and Britain will explore the links between the Dutch-born painter and this country and how it prompted him to discover new avenues in life and art.
If you didn’t know Vincent spent time in England, you will be more surprised that the Hertfordshire village of Welwyn plays a role in that story.
In 1873, aged 20, Vincent arrived in London from Holland. A junior clerk, he was transferred to the London offices of Hague-based international art dealer Goupil and Cie (where his uncle was a partner in the firm). As with much of his life, it is through Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo that we learn of his impressions, namely that he thoroughly enjoyed the English way of life and the city.
He found lodgings in a suburban boarding house and began to explore the city and its surroundings, falling in love with the countryside and parks and walking for miles to explore them. He wrote to Theo:
The countryside here is magnificent, completely different from Holland or Belgium. Everywhere one sees splendid parks with tall trees and shrubs, where one is allowed to walk.
(June 13, 1873).
Alex Farquharson, director of Tate Britain says the impact of this new country was profound on the artist: ‘His stay in Britain changed his vision of the world and himself, encouraging him to become an artist.’
In August Vincent found cheaper lodgings in Brixton, where he boarded with Ursula Loyer and her daughter Eugenie – to whom he declared his love and was rejected, bringing on, some art historians believe, a bout of depression.
Vincent’s sister, Anna, joined him at the Brixton lodgings the following July. At 19, she came in search of a job. She and Vincent answered advertisements in the newspapers daily but Anna had difficulty finding work.
Soon after Anna arrived they packed up their belongings and moved into a house on nearby Kennington Road. During this time, Vincent and Anna’s relationship became strained, possibly due to Vincent’s broken heart.
Two weeks after moving, Anna found a job that would take her out of the city to the countryside. She took up a post teaching French and music at Miss Applegarth’s school in Welwyn for £12 a year. She moved into Rose Cottage on Church Street; her teaching taking place in Ivy Cottage on Codicote Road.
In October Vincent was transferred to the Paris branch of Goupil and Cie, returning briefly to England the following January to help with a new outlet, before returning to Paris.
When he was away he sent packages of chocolates and pictures to Welwyn for Anna and his other sister Willemien who had joined her in Welwyn.
Thanks for what you sent, how sweet of you to think of us in this way. Here chocolate is also thought of as a real consolation.
(Letter from Anna to Vincent, December 30, 1875).
In April 1876, Vincent was back in England, taking up a position as an assistant teacher at Mr Stokes Boarding School in Ramsgate.
It’s thought that Vincent did not paint in England, but in his letters there are mentions of sketches. In Ramsgate he made two drawings of the View of Royal Road, which he sent to his parents as gifts.
On June 12 1876 Vincent set out on foot from Ramsgate to see his sister Anna in Welwyn (Willemien had returned to Holland). On the 100 or so mile trek he passed through Canterbury where he rested for a while and documents the ‘large beach and elm trees near a little pond.’
He admired the beauty of his walk, detailing his surroundings, the birdsong but also the overcast weather. Reaching London where he spent two evenings, he left at four in the morning for Welwyn. He arrived at Rose Cottage at five that evening. He wrote to Theo:
I was with our sister and was very glad to see her. She is looking well.
(June 17 1876).
Despite his poverty, Vincent collected around 2,000 engravings from English magazines and he came baring gifts for Anna of his favourite pictures.
Sandra Kyriakides of the Welwyn and District History Society said, ‘I find it very interesting that he bought prints to show his sister and the children – demonstrating his continued love for art.’
It’s believed Vincent only visited on this one occasion (Anna left the same year). He did not stay for long, and after two days headed to Isleworth where he continued teaching.
It seems Anna was extremely fond of Welwyn and the family she lived with. She wrote of her brother’s visit:
It was delightful meeting Vincent again, and I am glad he is meeting them here too, for no-one can imagine what a happy life I lead here, surrounded by so much love.
The thought of Vincent, poor and seeking direction, yet clearly in love with art and the visual world, walking 100 miles to visit his sister in Hertfordshire, is an extremely romantic one. You can still walk in his footsteps in Welwyn and see his sister’s cottage and school; see the things the great artist saw.
Could there be a sketch of Welwyn somewhere? Maybe not. But his life, and especially that of his sisters, was for a
short time bound up with the village.
With thanks to Welwyn and District History Society