VAN GOGH IN HERTFORDSHIRE
He had tried hard enough at Goupil’s Art Gallery in Paris. He just couldn’t understand why it was so hard to sell pictures he admired. Customers invariably chose something quite uninspiring to hang above their fireplace in their nice fashionable house. Once he had refused to sell a picture to M. Valentin until the man had first looked at Millets that were hanging in the gallery. Millet, painter of peasants, was Vincent’s idol. He fervently believed Millet would convert all Philistine tastes and lead, in particular, M. Valentin to a higher appreciation of art. If only he could sell the Millets and not this worldly art preferred by these dolthead Parisians, how happy he would be. No, he was cast into misery by only selling despicable paintings. Vincent had been told to humour customers’ taste but today he couldn’t keep quiet. Unfortunately he had only succeeded in annoying the customer. The man complained to the gallery manager about Vincent’s behaviour. M. Valentin, paid for his chosen painting and watched as the now red faced impudent young man wrapped up the picture before leaving him to face the wrath of the owner who, shortly after, called him into his office and fired him.
Faced with the need to find new work Vincent thought hard about what he wanted. His real desire was to serve God, to become a clergyman, but he had neither the necessary Latin nor the qualifications to train for the church. Although his father was a clergyman in Etten he had never really encouraged him, seeing in Vincent an unhealthy desire to practice Christianity by living the Christ life and serving the poor. If he couldn’t become a clergyman he could teach. He had lived in England a few years earlier and had become very proficient in English. He could follow in his sister Anna’s footsteps and teach languages in England. He liked England. Its countryside was so different from Holland with many nice hilly areas. He remembered Box Hill where he had walked from Brixton, it took him six hours but walking never bothered him. He loved taking in the different sights and savouring the feel of his boots hitting the ground and gradually, by his own strength and effort, getting himself from place to place.
England though had its dark side. In his memory was Ursula the lovely young woman, the daughter of the landlady of his digs in Brixton who aroused in him a desperate passion. He remembered the months of agony while keeping his love to himself and his turbulent feelings whenever he encountered her in the house. That was until the fateful day when he could not contain himself any longer and blurted out his love for her. He asked her to marry him. Then the terrible reaction when she drew away from him in horror saying she would never marry such a man as he and the pain of discovering that she was already secretly engaged. He hadn’t taken no for an answer and harried her and cajoled her until she turned on him with her anger. He tried to fight her refusal but it was useless and he left his lovely London home and went back to Holland a saddened man.
It was his brother, Theo, to whom he had turned for support and advice. Theo was the successful one in the art trade, earning a good income and surging ahead in his career. He was popular with customers and management alike. Vincent knew his father was opposed to his lifestyle and his mother was never easy to talk to. She even resented him for being alive he thought when his own brother, also called Vincent, lay in his grave. Vincent had passed the little tombstone with his own name on it and the same birthday March 30th, every day on his walk to school. He remembered the weekly pilgrimage he had to make with his mother to lay flowers on the first Vincent’s grave and the feeling of being a poor substitute as his mother sobbed uncontrollably. ‘She loved him not me’ the thought weighed on him, feeling his unlovableness compared with the little one who had gone to live with the angels.
A letter arrived from England. It was the first reply from the many he had sent looking for a position. The postmark was Ramsgate. The Headmaster, Mr Stokes, offered him a trial teaching post. Vincent wrote back immediately, promising that Mr Stokes would be more than happy with him. He wrote to his brother Theo; ‘My salary at Mr Stokes will be very small. Probably only board and lodging and some free time in which to teach, or if there’s no time at most £20 a year’ Theo urging him to take his drawing more seriously and to take up painting but Vincent was excited to have a purpose again. He would show Mr Stokes how talented he was, that God had created him to be a fine teacher and his pupils would love him as their teacher. He would also be able to visit his sister Anna who was teaching French in a school in Welwyn in Hertfordshire.
He found Welwyn on a map and saw that the route from Ramsgate to Welwyn passed through London. He would have little money so he would walk! A long way; but what of it? Anna would welcome him to her little cottage. They could talk about home together. But he would have to get some work in first, to please Mr Stokes, before he could have some time off.
Pleasing Mr Stokes proved to be not so easy. At first his employer seemed very amiable and joked with the boys but he was short tempered and could quickly change to a fierce disposition. Apparently oblivious to the fact that he was not paying Vincent any money and that the board was frugal, he expected Vincent to prepare elaborate reports on each child’s progress and work long hours preparing his lessons. Vincent’s eager enthusiasm was soon dampened. Mr Stokes wanted his teachers to stick to his rules not make up their own.
Vincent had only been in Ramsgate a couple of months when, to his surprise, Mr Stokes announced that he was moving the school to Isleworth. If Vincent wanted to visit his sister he could go on ahead of the school’s move to new premises. Vincent seized the opportunity to set off on his visit to Anna in Welwyn.
Wednesday 17 June 1876
My dear Theo
Last Monday I left Ramsgate for London. That’s a long walk indeed, and Canterbury…
Vincent headed for Canterbury Cathedral and thought of himself as a latter day pilgrim to the Shrine of Thomas Beckett, that so-noble Saint who defied the authority of the King for God’s work. That’s what I want to do he thought. To be as true and honest in God’s service that no-one, not employer or Society can stand in my way – which will always be pure and steadfast. A priest passed by the kneeling, muttering dishevelled man with the mop of bright red hair. He looked at him pityingly, crossing himself and quickening his step.
‘..that same evening I walked a bit further until I came to a couple of large beeches and elms next to a small pond, where I rested for a while. In the morning at half past three the birds began to sing on seeing the morning twilight and I continued on my way. It was good to walk then. In the afternoon I arrived at Chatham, where in the distance, past partly flooded low lying meadows, with elms here and there, one sees the Thames full of ships. There I met a cart that brought me a couple of miles further but then the driver went into an Inn …’
The driver was a jovial man and, seeing Vincent was not in the best of shape for lack of food and drink, invited him to join him. He was a very decent sort and since he was not intending to go on further that day, offered to pay for some victuals. A tankard of beer and some cheese and bread were devoured. The driver started talking to a man in his forties, slightly wild eyed and foreign looking. He turned and looked at Vincent who smiled nervously back. It wasn’t easy to walk a lonely path and remain silent so, as the two got more animated, Vincent was drawn in. The stranger was an artist from London who often came down to these parts to paint. He had a foreign name although he spoke perfect English, it was Dante Gabriel Rosetti. After carousing for a few hours Vincent reflected through a drunken haze that he had to get on, but he had discovered something important from this English artist.
Dante had struggled against the Establishment, with his colleagues, known as the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, but now was accepted. He had had a turbulent but exciting career, exhibited at the Royal Academy and painted lovely women who modelled for him. Right now he was painting his friend’s wife, Jane Morris. She was modelling Pandora; opening her box and releasing all the demons and cares of the world, all except hope. ‘It is a wonderful theme and my model is perfect for it, see.’ He produced a sketch and showed it to Vincent, who was overwhelmed by the magic of Rosetti’s swiftly executed lines capturing the beauty and remoteness of his model. Vincent’s mind cast back to Ursula and her remoteness and the way he had hung on to hope. Now as he peered at the drawing he was captured by the image of sunflowers on Pandora’s Box. Always turning towards the sun, they too symbolised hope. Pride intervened and Vincent countered the marvellous sketch by getting a drawing from his knapsack, one he had worked on in the meadow near Chatham. His fellow artist was impressed.
‘You have talent young man. You should take up painting. If you do you can show me what you can do.’ He put his card into Vincent’s hand as he got up to leave.
Vincent found his way to London; in particular to the home of Gladwell’s parents. He was the young Englishman who had worked with him at Goupils. They had shared an obsessional passion for Christianity and had spent many evenings when Vincent had read from the Bible. His intention had been to read the entire bible to Gladwell, until even the zealous Gladwell desperately sought some other entertainment – in the bars of Paris. The young Dutchman was welcomed with warmth and was offered a bed for the night. Vincent declined the bed because he was eager to get on.
“I wanted to leave for Welwyn that evening but they literally held me back by force because of the pouring rain. However when it had let up somewhat, around 4 in the morning, I set out for Welwyn. It was long walk from one end of the city to the other, something like 10 miles, each taking 20 minutes. In the afternoon at 5, I was with our sister and was very glad to see her.”
Brother and sister shared a delight in each other’s company, going for walks in the Hertfordshire countryside and talking eagerly about their lives and about Theo, and their parents in Etten. Sharing their thoughts and feelings brought them close, and Anna’s love for her unkempt and difficult brother, grew in his company. Above all, she wanted to help him make the right choice for his future, be it in England or in Holland, in teaching or the priesthood; and to find the right woman to take care of him too. He can never be alright on his own, she thought.
Vincent was very pleased with the room his sister gave him in Ivy Cottage. There were good pictures on his wall; Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World reminding him of the call to Christ knocking on his door – and, recalling his strange meeting with the other Pre Raphaelite Rosetti at the Inn near Chatham. He was startled out of his reverie when his sister Anna burst into the room, excitedly waving a piece of paper.
‘Vincent. Guess what. There is going to be a Ball in Hertford on Saturday. The Headmaster and his wife have invited you and me to accompany them, and we can go in their carriage.’
Red faced and alarmed Vincent recoiled ‘But I can’t dance.’ Anna put her arm around his shoulder cajoling him sweetly as she used to do when they were both children. ‘You don’t have to dance but just being there you will meet lots of pretty women who would be fascinated to meet a foreigner – they don’t see many in England and you can charm them with your accent and all your funny ideas.’ Unconvinced but persuaded, Vincent knew he couldn’t refuse Anna anything. He never could.
The great Shire Hall in Hertford sparkled with chandeliers. Champagne was handed out by the uniformed footmen. Vincent tugged at the tight collar on his hired suit and took a sip of champagne. He never drank the stuff in Paris, always being lured by the more bohemian Absinthe. Soon, he found his nervousness had subsided after a third glass of champagne. The headmaster made much of him and introduced him as ‘Our visiting Dutch man. Our old enemy. They sank our finest warship and took the flag back to Amsterdam you know.’ Vincent was somewhat thrown by this equivocal introduction but it got whoever he was being introduced to into a good mood to talk to him. It certainly stood him in good stead when he was introduced to the pretty daughter of the Head of one of Hertford’s schools.
Julia’s blue eyes put him at ease as she laughed off her father’s insensitive introduction. Straight away he knew she was different; perhaps one of those new independent young women? She smiled coquettishly at the awkward Dutch man and told him that this very ballroom was used by Jane Austen as a setting for a scene from her popular novel: Pride and Prejudice. Vincent had never read it as his taste was more for the gritty realism of Emile Zola. His interest increased when she got on to the subject of art, expressing a great interest in Dutch art and in particular, Vermeer.
‘Do you know that Vermeer included coded symbols in his paintings? The Girl with the Pearl Ear Ring is not just one of the most beautiful portraits ever painted, it also holds a mystery within which only the initiates can understand.’
‘Such as you?’ ventured Vincent.
‘Such as me,’ she whispered. In an alcove in the great ballroom, and alone with their champagne, Julia revealed that she knew the Secret ‘not only to that painting but to a secret here in Hertford, a town of mysteries. Come I will show you.’
Fascinated, he followed her out and on to Fore Street. She led him across the road to the Salisbury Arms, an inn famous for Oliver Cromwell’s visit. Once inside, they were confronted by a loud, drunken group of Englishmen. They stared after the odd couple; an obvious foreigner with an ill fitting suit with a pretty young girl in a stunning yellow dress, who was leading the strange fellow as if she were a groom taking a horse in hand.
Vincent found himself being pulled along the corridor to get away from the rude crowd; and then down narrow stone steps which, he presumed, led to the cellar. At the bottom, a large wooden door appeared. There was a lamp inside and, as Julia lifted it off its hook, Vincent gasped. He recognised the lamp held by the Christ in the painting of the Light of the World. More stone stairs led down what seemed like a very long way indeed. At last they stopped in a narrow passageway.
‘Where are we?’
‘In the Hertford Labyrinth, a series of underground tunnels and meeting rooms built by the Knights Templar – and where they hid the Holy Grail.’ Vincent wondered if the girl had drunk too much champagne. She told him the tunnel stretched all the way from the Castle and then under Fore Street, the High Street of the town. Eventually the tunnel stopped and a large wooden door appeared. Vincent felt a sense of deja vu. Ah, yes it was just like the door in the Light of the World painting. Julia produced a key from her bag. After struggling with the lock, she finally sprang it open. The lamp revealed a strange cell like space decorated with carvings of symbols and stories from mythology and Christ’s life. ‘The Grail is here,’ she whispered. ‘Now we are here it will appear.’ They waited. A glowing light appeared on the wall and, dwelling on certain symbols, it came to a stop on one: the lit image became animated and a figure emerged from it carrying a golden chalice. Startled, Vincent realised it was again reminiscent of the Holman Hunt painting.
The figure carried the chalice as the Christ had carried the lamp in Hunt’s painting. As it approached Vincent, Julia whispered:
‘Don’t be afraid Vincent, you are one of the initiates and can learn from the Secret of the Holy Grail. Ask it a question.’
‘Show me if I should be a teacher or a priest,’ asked the trembling Vincent.
Vincent was sweating with fear and anticipation as he walked a few steps and peered into the Grail. At first he just saw water in the cup and then slowly an image appeared. He saw himself, a rather intense look on his face with a sun hat on his head striding along carrying an easel and paints.
Vincent fell back in amazement and yet felt a sense of realisation. This was his vocation: painting! As he understood at last, he remembered Theo’s encouragement to take up painting, and the advice of Dante Gabriel Rosetti. This is how he would be a light to the world, through his art.
17 June 1876
You can imagine how delightful it was meeting Vincent again. I am so glad he is meeting all of them here too, for no-one can imagine what a happy life I lead here, surrounded by so much love……Vincent is busy showing drawings to the children
With much love
Sources: Quotations taken from letters written by Vincent Van Gogh and his sister Anna Van Gogh.