Van Gogh in Kent: the inspiration he took forward from his days in England

Van Gogh brings us so much happiness, although much of his life was tormented. He suffered like so many artists from the difficulty of finding a place in society and thus of keeping himself alive. In his early adult years in England however he showed all the qualities that would sustain a foreshortened lifetime. His love of nature,  the alternating comfort and discomfort of religious belief, the dignity and harshness of physical work, and quality of human love etched themselves into his creative soul.

Before he moved to Kent, Vincent aged 23, had worked in London for the art dealers Goupil et fils, where he had a family introduction. The job as a salesman didn’t suit him and he didn’t handle customers well. But he knew English and that landed him a teaching job in Ramsgate, unpaid but with board and lodging. He arrived in that lovely old port on England’s south east coast, from Holland, on 17 April 1876 and wrote to his brother Theo four days later from his new surroundings. [Letter 078, of 21 April 1876] You can see the Blue Plaque today on No 6 Royal Road, from where he drew the view. The tall, classic English Victorian mansion stood on a slight rise in the residential middle-class heart of the town and looked down to the cliff and the sea beyond. Vincent’s parents back in Neunen in Holland hoped this would be the foundation of a successful new career path for their difficult son.

In the Ramsgate sketch you can immediately see how lyrical was his perception of the created world. The curving sweep of the empty road is almost loving, with the vertical street lamps drawing in attention to the centre of the composition. In later work these verticals will often be trees, especially cypress trees, or spires, or towers, or factory chimneys.

But it’s even more in the letters of that spring and early summer of 1876 that Vincent’s sense of artistic form and his early palette are already evident.

Here he is writing to Theo on 31 May 1876:

Have I already written to you about the storm I saw recently? The sea was yellowish, especially close to the beach: a streak of light on the horizon, and above this, tremendously huge dark grey clouds from which one saw the rain coming down in slanting streaks…

This was the palette for a couple of early paintings that will stand out as landmarks in his career: The Potato-Eaters (1885) and Boots with Laces (1886).

Looking inland and back again to the sea, Vincent went on:

On the right, fields of young green wheat, and, in the distance, the town with its towers, mills, slate roofs and houses …I also saw the sea last Sunday night, everything was dark grey, but day was beginning to break on the horizon…In the distance the light of the lighthouse, the guardship etc.

From this paragraph written when he was 22 a whole series of later paintings seems to emerge, from Outskirts of Paris (1886), with its start-up factories and smokestacks to Wheatfield with Crows ( 1890) in the south of France.

That same night I looked out of the window of my room onto the roofs of the houses one sees from there and the tops of the elms, dark against the night sky. Above those roofs, one single star, but a nice big friendly one. And I thought of us all… and the words and feeling came to me: ‘Keep me from being a son that causeth shame…Thou art love, beareth all things.

He might have been looking up at another future canvas, Starry Night (1889).

The young teacher mused:

Many a boy will never forget the view from that window. You should have seen it this week, when we had rainy days, especially in the twilight when the street-lamps are being lit and their light is reflected in the wet street.

The Kent letters were sketches in words. Their themes include roads, and all kinds of sources of light, and the starry night, and things that are broken or faded or as he will say ‘things over which life has passed’. One day he’ll linger over blousy sunflowers in a vase, beyond what common judgement would say was their ‘best’. In Ramsgate he homed in on a broken floor.

Another extraordinary place is the room with the rotten floor, where there are only six basins at which they wash themselves, with only a feeble light falling onto the washstand through a window with broken panes. It’s quite a melancholy sight, to be sure. How I’d like to spend or have spent a winter with them, to know what it’s like.

I want to dwell on his lifelong painterly fondness for broken, decaying things (and which he would pass on to future artists, right up to Anselm Kiefer in our own day.) Van Gogh would emphasize something about the materiality of objects which it seemed no one had noticed before, namely, that they didn’t need to be perfect to have meaning. The murky light of Mr Stokes’s school washrooms was indeed hardly a testament to beauty and happiness, but then nor were the factories where the weavers he would encounter in a few years’ time would work in miserable light. In the future too there would be many sketches and paintings of derelict property.

If he taught his pupils anything, we might hope van Gogh  taught them this praise-filled attentiveness. His father was a Protestant pastor and surely he acquired this devotion in childhood. The Ramsgate letters have a warm and open sympathy for the world as he finds it. Existence is friendly. Despite the evidence of suffering, hinted at through material decrepitude, there is a divine mover at work.

Here he is describing a walk with those pupils:

Now let me tell you about a walk we took yesterday. It was to an inlet in the sea, and the road to it led through the fields of young wheat and along hedgerows of hawthorn etc. When we got there we had on our left a high, steep wall of sand and stone, as high as a two-storey house, on top of which stood old, gnarled hawthorn bushes. Their black or grey lichen-covered stems and branches had all been bent to the same side by the wind, also a few elder bushes. The ground we walked on was completely covered with large grey stones, chalk and shells. To the right the sea, as calm as a pond, reflecting the delicate grey sky where the sun was setting. It was ebb tide and the water was very low.

[from a letter of 28 April 1876]

Yet Vincent couldn’t conform to the moral code, or, in the end, accept the literal belief of his father, and that was his agony. The troubles in his nature moved him on from Ramsgate after only two months.

Still what we can see was what a great painter of himself he was, already in words that mingled the faith he had been taught with the feelings he thought were true for him:

Although I have not been trained for the church, perhaps my past life of travelling, living in various countries, associating with a variety of people, rich and poor, religious and not religious, working at a variety of jobs, days of manual labour between days of office work, perhaps also my speaking various languages will compensate in part for my lack of formal training. But what I should prefer to give as my reason for commending myself to you…is…the Love of God and humankind.

[Letter of 17 June, 1876 to Theo]

The text was intended as his CV for his next job, but it was more a fragment of spiritual autobiography than a job application. He talks about how manual labour demands his attention; how a Christian faith sustains him, even as he spends his time wandering here and there. There is a dynamism in the writing which expresses a restlessness of soul, and that dynamism will one day appear in the painting too. Not yet a painter, he keeps on the move and writes letters. The walk from Ramsgate to London, at three miles an hour, via the dockyards at Chatham, with a few hours’ sleep under the hedgerows, is, in its way, at least to us readers, an epiphany.

London, the largest city in Europe, was overwhelming. Vincent’s sense was that cities, with their troublesome industry and new, often uncomfortable and distressing ways of bringing people together, needed meaning bestowed upon them.  It was as if they needed divine blessing and this was something his art, or, for the time being, his eye, translated into words, could provide. He would feel it first with London and then with Paris:

Many a worker in a factory or shop has had a remarkable, pure, pious youth. But city life often takes away “the early dew of morning”, yet the yearning for the “old, old story” remains, the bottom of one’s heart remains the bottom of one’s heart.’ Follows a reference to George Eliot describing in one of her books the life of the factory workers and calling it ‘God’s Kingdom upon Earth.

[letter of 12 May 1876]

The young van Gogh may have been, as his sister Anna said, ‘groggy with piety’, but that would be his art’s great gain, as he captured some of the pains of industrialization.

After Ramsgate he went to teach in Isleworth, on the southwest edge of London today, beside the Thames. But then his parents recalled him to Holland at the end of the year, anxious that his life was not on track. What followed  were difficult years of moving about the Low Countries, sketching and finally painting. His interest in manual labour led him to stay a year with the miners in the then coal-mining district of the Borinage, in Belgium, from 1879-1880. He took up a ‘position’, as he called it, though it was hardly that, as a lay preacher who cared for the sick and hungry and poor.

The palette and the preoccupations of these years, as I have argued in my book A Shoe Story Van Gogh, the Philosophers and the West, were fully incorporated in the 1886 painting A Pair of Shoes, aka Boots with Laces. This painting can be seen as itself a kind of self-portrait, matching the self-description in the Ramsgate letter of June 1876. In it we find the walking that was his daily practice, the boots he walked in, the suffering of the miners, the Christian interest in light and the transcendence of suffering, and the yellow and black palette of the storm. Even as the dim Dutch palette, the fondness for grey that he several times expressed in the Ramsgate letters, prepares to give way to the bright palette  he discovers the south of France, all his main themes seem to be condensed in the colourways of this 1886 canvas. He will paint more shoes and more roads in the few years he has left, from brighter, drier resting-places in the south of France. But he never forgot the Borinage, he wrote, and we might feel he never forgot grey, damp Ramsgate either.

On his sympathy with the labouring class, we need to remember that Van Gogh was born in 1853 into a world which Marx decried as immiserated by capitalism. The same vista of pain, squalor and exploitation horrified Engels, in his 1844 study of working-class London and Manchester.  The painter too noticed the spread of the industrial landscape and working-class distress, and tried to redeem them with art and faith. Like Marx he felt the nineteenth century was so strained by progress it was likely to go out with a big bang. This is in one of the later letters. Anthony Blunt once said that van Gogh was a founder member of a school of true working-class art.

This may be true. I will name some of the painters of the working class whom he inspires in a moment. Yet it must be said van Gogh lacks all political sense. He is sympathetic to individuals because he is solitary himself and has time to notice and care for them. His little groups of people are not organised by an idea of class solidarity. They occur  in restaurants or cafes or brothels or in small groups collaborating for work or leaving church.

In fact his own life was difficult because his relationship to other human beings was so oblique.

It was something Vincent felt already in the Ramsgate year about himself:

If there should be no human being that you can love enough, love the town in which you dwell…I love Paris and London, though I am a child of the pinewoods and of the beach at Ramsgate.

[Letter to Theo, autumn 1876 ]

Think of the deserted Ramsgate street he sketched. When he paints workers and labourers they are more isolated one from another than bonded. In Paris he’ll notice people strolling in the park. They will be solitary individuals or distant pairs and clusters, fond but remote objects for the painter to reach.

He arrived in Paris at the mid-point of his career.  At first the painting  Outskirts of Paris seems no great distance from the Vincent we first found sketching in Ramsgate. But  Road with Cypress and Star and Starry Night take us into a new realm. He began to translate old themes into spectacular colour and into biomorphic forms that bordered on the delirious.

Before illness descended on him he could see a kind of romance in industrialization which for me points forward to the Russian painter Kazimir Malevich. While painting Russian villages at the turn into the twentieth century Malevich found the same poignancy there arising out of the muted conflict between permanence and change, nature and industry, that Van Gogh had done in his experience of the Lowlands, and rural northern France, twenty and forty years earlier. Malevich’s 1928 Haymaking has the hallmarks of a homage to the earlier painter. It’s not quite the same van Gogh who  inspires twentieth-century English social painters like L.S. Lowry and Norman Cornish. But it’s another role for him, with one foot in modernism and another in realism, with a northern palette and a one closer to the Mediterranean, that van Gogh can also inspire, as if directly from Ramsgate,   Lowry’s Returning from Work (1929) and Cornish’s Two Miners on Pit Road (1980s?).

Vincent always loved houses. We can capture yet one more span of his career if we set alongside each other his sketch of Royal Crescent in Ramsgate, from 1876, with his famous oil painting of The Yellow House in Arles of 1888.  Though this last is best-known to us pastel- coloured against a deep blue sky there is an extraordinary unity between the little Ramsgate drawing  and a pen and ink sketch of his Arles home. Not finding human objects for his affections, Vincent directs his love towards towns, and houses, and roads, and the way of things. That’s where the kindliness of his street scenes comes from, and it’s how he comes to shape the townscape with affection, always emphasizing the uniqueness of the houses and their living, ongoing quality. The buildings are as if ready to grow and adapt and lean and sympathize. This is the urban counterpart to the passionate reciprocity of his feelings that he derived from nature.

Illness intensified his feelings for buildings and street scenes and nature beyond realism. By coincidence a van Gogh groggy with colour burst upon the scene of European painting just as other painters opened up new pathways. The Fauves in France and the Cubo-Futurists in Russia and the spectacular German Expressionists can therefore seem like his immediate descendants, and many of them, especially in Germany, derived great inspiration his work.

Alexej von Jawlensky, Dark Blue Turban (Helene with Dark Blue Turban), 1910,

This article was originally given as a talk to the Canterbury Festival on October 22, 2015. It was a lovely occasion, in a great and historic city.

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