London: “Van Gogh and Britain” @ Tate Britain

I don’t think I even need to say how much I love Van Gogh to anyone who reads this blog regularly, but yes, I love Van Gogh! And so Marcus booked us tickets to go see the new exhibition at Tate Britain, “Van Gogh and Britain” whilst there were still tickets to be had (I assume there are still tickets at this point, since it runs til 11th August, but I also know that exhibitions in London can completely book up if you’re not careful to get in early). Because Van Gogh is such a big name that they can get away with it, admission is definitely on the pricier side at £22, though fortunately they do offer discounts for National Art Pass holders, so we got in for £11. And yes, we did have to stand in the queue you see above, even with pre-booked tickets, but it moved quickly.

The purpose of the exhibition, as you may have guessed from the title, was to cover both Van Gogh’s experiences whilst living in London (between 1873 and 1876) and his posthumous influence on British artists of the early-mid 20th century. Van Gogh moved to London when he was 20 to work for an art dealer, which lasted for two years until he was dismissed (he was developing increasingly radical ideas about art, which proved incompatible with his position) and dabbled with preaching and teaching in Isleworth and Ramsgate. Although he never returned to Britain after 1876 (he left before he had even begun painting, though he did make little sketches whilst he was here, some of which were on display), the experiences he had here clearly shaped his life and art, especially the time he spent visiting museums. The exhibition had his signature in the Dulwich Picture Gallery guestbook on show, as you can see above (I can definitely read the “Gogh” and maybe a “van”, but that doesn’t look like “Vincent” to me. Honestly, it looks more like Theo Van Gogh, but they said it was Vincent, so I’ll go with it).

The first four rooms contained a mix of Van Gogh’s paintings and paintings that he saw whilst visiting London that inspired him, some of which he copied in his own style whilst learning to develop as an artist. As you can see, calling this exhibition crowded is an understatement, but due to how things were laid out, I found that I was able to slip in and look at paintings with relative ease. However, although it was clearly beneficial for me as a blogger, and I know I often complain when exhibitions don’t allow photography, in this particular instance, I felt it would have been a much better experience without it. People were just standing in front of the paintings for ages whilst trying to get that perfect shot, and not even looking at what was right in front of them, which really annoyed me – especially because Van Gogh has a tendency to make me a bit emotional, and I wish everyone could take the time to really appreciate his talent for finding beauty in the mundane.

Like me, Van Gogh had a bit of a love-hate relationship with London. He said, “I often felt low in England, but the Black and White and Dickens [“black and white” meaning British prints] are things that make up for it all.” The exhibition contained quotes excerpted from Van Gogh’s many letters, to great effect, and even some facsimiles of his letters, the originals being too fragile to travel (Van Gogh spoke four languages, including English, so the ones here were written in English, and I enjoyed reading them). He discovered Gustav Doré’s engravings of London, and absolutely fell in love with them, collecting as many as he could afford. He even made his own version of Doré’s print of prisoners exercising at Newgate, as seen above right. There was also a painting of the Victoria Embankment (above left) about which Van Gogh said, “A couple of days ago we got a painting by De Nittis, a view of London on a rainy day…I crossed Westminster Bridge every morning and evening, and know what it looks like when the sun’s setting behind Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and what it’s like early in the morning, and in the winter with snow and fog. When I saw this painting, I felt how much I love London.” Which sums up how I feel when I cross over Hungerford Bridge at night. Oh, Vincent.

Like I said, it’s not hard for me to get emotional over Van Gogh, and that’s definitely what happened when I read the caption on the painting of a “sorrowing old man,” based on an earlier lithograph he did of a war veteran he sometimes used as a model. According to one of his doctors, when Van Gogh was mentally unwell, “he usually sits with his head in his hands, and if someone speaks to him, it is as though it hurts him, and he gestures for them to leave him alone.” Just like the man in his painting, which he did when he was staying at Saint-Paul Hospital. Reading that just about broke my heart.

There were lots of pieces here that I’d never seen before, including one of the hospital at Saint-Remy that I visited last year, which was one of my favourite pieces in this exhibition. I also really loved the sketch of Vincent and his brother Theo, done by Vincent’s friend Lucien Pissarro, which is thought to be the only image of the brothers together (and it’s gratifying to see that Vincent looks pretty much as he does in his self-portraits, so the picture we all have of him in our heads is probably fairly accurate).

My favourite part of the exhibition was definitely the half on Van Gogh and Britain, rather than on British artists and Van Gogh, but there were still some Van Gogh paintings to enjoy in the final five rooms, although they were heavily interspersed with those by British artists influenced by the Post-Impressionists. Obviously I enjoy the Post-Impressionists myself, but I still had to laugh at the cartoon showing “Post-Impressions of the Post-Impressionists” based on the first time these paintings were shown in London in 1910, twenty years after Van Gogh’s death.

There was a whole room devoted to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which was first exhibited in 1924 in the original location of the National Gallery at Millbank, in what is now the Tate. Since the painting moved with the National Gallery to Trafalgar Square in the 1960s, this is the first time it has made the trip back across town. The National Gallery was given permission to buy the painting by Theo Van Gogh’s widow Johanna (Theo died only six months after Vincent), who devoted the rest of her life to promoting Vincent’s work, and offered the museum the painting only a year before she died.

I’ve stuck to mainly including Van Gogh’s paintings throughout this post, but I had to show you this painting of a young Roald Dahl by Matthew Smith (above right), which was heavily influenced by Van Gogh’s style. In fact, the last room was entirely pieces by British painters, mainly Francis Bacon, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I felt like I had to return to the room before it to look at some of Van Gogh’s work again so I could leave on a high note. There was some discussion in here of how Van Gogh’s mental illness affected British perceptions of him throughout the 20th century, which I thought was quite interesting, and I would have enjoyed hearing more about it, though I suppose that topic could (and apparently has, judging on some of the books on display!) fill a book.

The shop had some nice merchandise, including the very expensive, but very cute crocheted Vincent doll (I went for the cheaper miniature key chain version, but he was still £8!), and I also went home with a print of the above self-portrait. The exhibition mentioned that the last Van Gogh exhibition at the Tate, in 1947, attracted 5000 visitors a day, and judging by all the people that were there when I visited, I could easily imagine this exhibition surpassing it. I didn’t love the experience of visiting because of the crowds and the issue with people taking photos (which I know is a bit hypocritical since I had Marcus take photos for the post too, but I would have been perfectly fine with no one being allowed to take photos in this instance) – lest you think I’m exaggerating, have a look at the collage Marcus made, below. It was a fairly big exhibition, and I’m delighted I got to see so many Van Gogh pieces, including some that had never been on public display before, but I’m still glad I only paid £11, because £22 is an awful lot of money (and to be fair, I spent more than £11 on stuff from the shop, so they got the full admission fee out of me in one way or another)! Nonetheless, I think the exhibition was well done, and I especially appreciated all the text, which can be rare in an art exhibition – thanks to Van Gogh’s eloquent letters, I feel I understand certain aspects of his life better, particularly the time he spent in London.  I liked that the exhibition focused largely on the lesser-known parts of Van Gogh’s life, since I think most people who are willing to pay £22 to see a Van Gogh exhibition are familiar with the most well known parts of his life story by now, and don’t need to re-read it fifty times. And of course, Van Gogh’s art is always gloriously moving. So, 3.5/5 for the exhibition, even with the issues with the crowds.

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16 comments

    1. Well, you’ve got til August… I mean, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is probably a better bet in terms of how many of Van Gogh’s pieces are there, but this was an interesting perspective on how Britain shaped the artist he became, and seeing London through Van Gogh’s eyes makes me appreciate it more.

  1. That exhibition looks brilliant. £22 is too much but probably worth it. I don’t get taking photos rather than looking at the painting in front of you either. May need to sort out a trip to London to see this one!

    1. In addition to the National Art Pass discount, I think they offer 2 for 1 with the National Rail deal, though that’s not ideal if you’re visiting alone! I got my money’s worth for £11, but not £22. Not that you can put a price on art I guess, but I still try to!

      1. I may need to get myself a National Art Pass, I think. A lot of times I visit places on my own, a concept that doesn’t seem to have occurred to National Rail.

      2. I know, it’s not very nice to be penalised for doing things by yourself! I like visiting exhibitions alone sometimes too, but I barely ever did until I got the Art Pass. It’s like those museums that offer “family passes” that are cheaper than two adult tickets. Why am I being penalised for not having children?!

      3. The family pass thing does seem particularly egregious. Museums miss a trick by not marketing themselves as great places to appreciate on your own too.

  2. This exhibition looks amazing! We were in London recently but tickets were sold out for the weekend so we didn’t get to go.
    If you like Van Gogh, Netflix had a movie called Loving Vincent which is animated in the style of his paintings. I’m not sure if it’s still available, but if you haven’t seen it, definitely worth checking it out!
    I did balk a little at the £22 entrance fee – for so many people, that is prohibitively expensive, but I can also understand the huge costs involved with shipping many of these paintings internationally. The Guardian had a really interesting article on it a few weeks ago: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/mar/21/how-to-move-a-masterpiece-secret-business-shipping-priceless-artworks-art-handling

    1. Thanks for sharing, it is interesting! I share an office at work with the curators, so I get a little taste of the negotiations and logistics involved with loaning anything out (mainly through eavesdropping!) – though we do have some rare items in our collection, it’s nothing like at the level of a Van Gogh, or the Mona Lisa, so it’s neat to hear how the big guys do it!

  3. Looks like an interesting show, even if it is crowded. I have mixed feelings about the photo taking as well — I’m really visual, so love having visual reminders (photos) of my visit and the museum shop never seems to carry postcards of the images that most impact me. I got to experience both photos allowed and no photos at the Kroller Muller’s Van Gogh exhibit and at the Van Gogh museum. The Kroller Muller is outside Amsterdam a ways and wasn’t as crowded, but did allow photos, so there were some folks we stayed in front of a painting for a long time — but almost no one was doing lots of selfies, so it was easy to find space along with them. The main exhibits in the Van Gogh museum were mobbed. Even without being able to take pictures, there were just too many people. But I’m not convinced it would have been that much worse if photos were allowed. And now it is hard for me to even remember what I saw there!

    1. I think I was lucky when I went to the Van Gogh Museum, because I genuinely don’t remember it being all that crowded, and I had a really nice experience. This was 12 years ago though, so I’m sure it has gotten more crowded – seems like everywhere has! I agree with you about the shop often not having postcards of the things I most want, which is why I try to keep a good range in my own museum shop.

  4. I’d never seen the painting of the prisoners before – it’s amazing. I know it was made after a print but, other than his paintings of rooms, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a work of his without any natural elements. It really succeeds in making it feel claustrophobic.
    Also, I wasn’t aware of the drawing of him and Theo before this. As you pointed out, it’s wonderful to know that he really looked that way. I especially love the contrasts between them – Vincent’s rumpled hat next to Theo’s crisp one and the differences in their posture.
    That thing about people taking photos without even looking at the subject makes me nuts. I find it annoying normally, but at a Van Gogh exhibition it’s particularly offensive. Why go if you don’t want to actually experience the man’s work?

    1. I thought I was a Van Gogh fan, but there were plenty of things I didn’t know existed either before going to this, including the two you mentioned, so it was an enlightening experience. And I love the drawing of Vincent and Theo too! But a lot of the people there needed a sharp smack upside the head.

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