I had learned quite a lot about Vincent Van Gogh’s time in London after visiting the Van Gogh exhibition at the Tate a few years ago, but one thing I didn’t learn was that you can visit one of the houses where he lived. Actually, you probably couldn’t at the time of that exhibition, because they’ve only just opened to the public following a “major conservation project”, but I spotted them on Art Fund’s website right after their reopening (due to Durham and Halloween, this is a very delayed post – I visited in early September when we were having a mini heatwave, hence my summery outfit) and booked Marcus and myself in for a visit.
Van Gogh House is located about a ten minute walk from Stockwell Underground Station, in a surprisingly nice leafy part of Stockwell that feels more like Hampstead. Due to a train mishap, we arrived about ten minutes late, which I was mildly panicking about since I hate being late, but it turned out that we were the only people visiting, so it was fine. Tickets are £5 or £2.50 with Art Pass, and they’re requesting that you book in advance, though based on our experience, you might well get lucky if you just show up. There was an exhibition at the time of our visit called “Life and its most trivial particulars.” This rather pretentiously named photographic installation by Brian Griffiths and Frank Kent runs until 18th December, and basically just means there’s a photograph in each of the rooms, so I wouldn’t rush to the house on account of it.
At the time Van Gogh lived in this three storey Georgian terrace, from 1873-74, it was a boarding house run by Ursula Layer and her daughter Eugenie, the latter of whom Vincent seems to have promptly fallen in love with, but it was unrequited. His sister Anna also moved in for a bit before they got a house together in Kennington in August 1874. So Van Gogh didn’t spend a tonne of time in the house, but at least he actually did live there, which is more than you can say for Cooks’ Cottage in Melbourne.
The house itself is quite cool, with original timbers in the floor, a lovely sunny room filled with houseplants much healthier than mine, and not one, but two toilets (even though one of them was a proper old Victorian pull-chain toilet, which I love, neither of them would have actually been here at the time Van Gogh was living here. They only had an outdoor privy back then, presumably supplemented with chamber pots). However, because Van Gogh didn’t become a huge name until quite a long time after leaving here, and researchers only discovered about fifty years ago that this was the house he had stayed in, quite a lot had been done to the house in the intervening years, so it’s not as it would have been in the 1870s. Considering the fate of the houses of many other historical figures, I suppose we’re lucky that it’s still standing at all!
Though I of course wanted to know every detail of Van Gogh’s time here, unfortunately, there’s not a great deal of information in the house. There was a small fact sheet laid out in each room containing a bit more information about the room and what Van Gogh was doing in London at that time, but that’s pretty much it. The photographic exhibition had virtually no information other than the names of the pieces. I know they were meant to be inspired by Van Gogh’s work, so if you’re familiar with his paintings, it’s not that hard to make a connection between, say, the photograph of potatoes growing and The Potato Eaters, but the connections were often tenuous at best, and it would have been nice to know more about what Van Gogh meant to the photographers, or how the photos were composed. I think they do occasionally offer guided tours, so it might be worth going on one of those to learn more about the history of the house, because you won’t get it from the current signage.
There was another installation where a modern artist had tried to recreate the paints used in Van Gogh’s paintings, but it literally was just a bunch of stripes painted on a wall, as seen above. Again, more information than just the names of the colours would have been appreciated. I feel like I’m being quite down on the house, but I do think the house itself was nice, and I loved being able to walk in the footsteps of Van Gogh, I just wanted to know more! I think the £2.50 we paid was reasonable, but a fiver is a bit steep for what you get. 2.5/5.
If you find yourself wanting more Van Gogh after you leave, you’re in luck, because there is a lovely little “Van Gogh Walk” about a minute away from the house. Most of this area was built up towards the end of the 19th century – at the time Van Gogh lived here, he was still surrounded by patches of nature and loved going for strolls to look at the flora and fauna, so this walk was in homage to that. You can stroll this plant-filled little passage down to the bust of Van Gogh at the end, on which someone had rested a disgusting sunflower head. Yes, I love Van Gogh, but I absolutely loathe sunflowers. I find their big heads revolting, don’t ask me why, and I honestly can’t even look closely at them without wanting to gag. I also hate the thickness of their stems and they way they loom over you in a sinister way, but I’ve probably already said too much. Regardless of my issues with sunflowers, I enjoyed the Van Gogh Walk, and the plaque and quotations in it probably contained more information than his whole damn house did, so I’d definitely stop and see it whilst you’re there.