arts

Papers found in Van Gogh's former home bring his time in London to life

Published 18th March 2019
A plaque marks Vincent van Gogh's stay at 87 Hackford Road in south London between 1873 and 1874.
Credit: Martin Bailey
Papers found in Van Gogh's former home bring his time in London to life
Written by Matthew Robinson, CNNLondon
A cache of papers and items dating from the period of Vincent van Gogh's stay in London has been recovered from the artist's former home, shedding new light on his time in the United Kingdom.
The items, which include insurance documents, a prayer book and several scraps of paper with painted watercolor flowers, were found under floorboards and in the attic timbers of the house at 87 Hackford Road near Brixton, south London.
The property's owners, Jian Wang and Alice Childs, discovered the documents while renovating the three-story, early-Victorian terraced house, which they bought in a dilapidated condition in 2012.
Insurance policies belonging to Vincent van Gogh's landlady, Ursula Loyer.
Insurance policies belonging to Vincent van Gogh's landlady, Ursula Loyer. Credit: Martin Bailey
Martin Bailey, a Van Gogh expert and author of "Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum," told CNN that the artist lived at the property between 1873 and 1874 while working as an assistant at the Goupil Gallery in Covent Garden.
"Van Gogh was 20 when he arrived, an impressionable age for anyone, so his period in London had a deep influence on him," he said. "What was important about London was that he worked in an art gallery, and this helped introduce him to painting. Had he never worked in a gallery, I believe it unlikely that he would ever have become an artist."
Bailey said the items with the strongest link to Van Gogh's time in London are a series of insurance policies in the name of Ursula Loyer, who was the artist's landlady during his stay in the city.
The documents were found under floorboards and in the attic timbers of the house at 87 Hackford Road.
The documents were found under floorboards and in the attic timbers of the house at 87 Hackford Road. Credit: Martin Bailey
Bailey wrote in the Art Newspaper that Van Gogh is thought to have fallen in love with Loyer's 19-year-old daughter, Eugénie, during his visit.
Alongside the insurance documents, builders also recovered a tattered 1867 edition of "A Penny Pocket Book of Prayers and Hymns." The offices of the book's publisher, Frederick Warne, were in Covent Garden, close to the gallery where Van Gogh worked.
Bailey wrote that the book was probably owned by Ursula, but may have been read by Van Gogh, who became a devout Christian while in London.
The final discovery was a number of scrap pieces of "graph-like" paper with painted watercolor flowers. While Bailey does not believe the watercolors were the work of Van Gogh himself, noting that the style does not bear any resemblance to the artist's, he said they may have painted by Eugénie.
"He [Van Gogh] sketched while he was in London, but he was very much an amateur," Bailey told CNN. "Most of the sketches are lost, but the few surviving ones give no indication of the talent that he would later develop."
A prayer book was discovered under the floorboards. The offices of the book's publisher were close to van Gogh's workplace in Covent Garden.
A prayer book was discovered under the floorboards. The offices of the book's publisher were close to van Gogh's workplace in Covent Garden. Credit: Martin Bailey
While Bailey described the finds as "intriguing," he noted that none of the objects was "definitely owned by Van Gogh."
Bailey is co-curating an exhibition at London's Tate Modern museum, entitled "Van Gogh and Britain," which is set to open on March 27. The exhibition will feature a near life-sized photograph of the façade of 87 Hackford Road, which will be placed near the entrance to the show.