Van Gogh in London (1874-1875)
Note: This is part I of a series on Vincent van Gogh’s early adult life. You can read each story separately, but if you feel like you’re missing out, check out the other parts.
On Vincent van Gogh’s morning walk to work, he crossed the river Thames via Westminster Bridge. From 1874 to 1875 he lived in Stockwell, South London and rather than taking an Omnibus to Covent Garden where he worked (construction had only just started on the London Underground), he chose to leg it. He would not take the shorter route via Waterloo Bridge, for he would have been charged a toll there. He was a a Dutchman after all.
Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) is posthumously considered to be one of the most influential painters in history. His oeuvre is a gripping paradox of crippling depression concealed by bright and uplifting colours. His death in 1890 (age 37) is credited to suicide. Despite his short life he was incredibly productive, creating an astonishing 860 oil paintings. Seen as an outcast and madman during his lifetime, there is scarcely an artist or personality so universally loved and viewed as “ours” then Vincent van Gogh. Wherever he visited in his lifetime, his genius is partially claimed. The Tate Britain’s “Van Gogh in London” exhibition in 2019 went as far as to imply Vincent was thinking of the river Thames when he painted “Starry Night over the Rhone”.
It may come as a surprise to find that Vincent, barely out of his teens and living in London wasn’t painting at all. In philosophy there is a current that preposes that the meaning of life could be explained by a single or a coherent set of projects in someone’s life. Supposedly these projects or “project view” give meaning to ones existence. Looking back on Vincent’s life it may be tempting to see his career as a painter as an ultimate destiny, and the only project that gave his life meaning. But which paths or projects to pursue aren’t always clear — even for the greatest.
This is the story of some of the happiest years of Vincent van Gogh’s life, spent in London between 1873 and 1875. His formative years if you will; Of the city and its appeal, but ultimately of moving on and changing direction.
“I have a rich life here, “having nothing & yet possessing everything” Sometimes I start to believe I am slowly becoming a true cosmopolitan, that’s not a Dutch man, English man or French man but simply a man.” 
Vincent adored Victorian London. He roamed the streets of Whitechapel and Kensington, described its beauty, but also the inequality and poverty in his letters home. He delved into the works of Dickens and saw spectacular progress like the construction of the London Underground. He soaked up the culture and vibrancy of the capital. He worked at the art dealer Goupil & Cie which was located at 17 Southampton Street, near Covent Garden. The art dealer transferred Vincent from its The Hague branch where his brother Theo (1857–1891) had recently started working. The Van Gogh family had a stake in the art dealership and an uncle had arranged their appointments. According to Vincent, the London shop wasn’t as busy as the shop in The Hague and that he “only needed to be there from 9 clock in the morning till 6 in the Evening” On Saturdays, he finished his shift at 5. The firm only sold prints at their London branch through their warehouse. According to Vincent, the shop sold around 100 a day.
Most of Vincent’s letters during his stay in London were directed to his brother Theo, who would become Vincent’s greatest supporter and confidante. Vincent may not have been a painter at this time, but he had a keen eye for art. Initially he had a distaste for the British masters, but gradually he started to appreciate and get acquainted with the works of painters like Constable, Millais and Turner. Indeed, Vincent had every opportunity to see their work, with the Royal Academy and The National Gallery just around the corner from where he worked.
In a letter from January 1874, Vincent and Theo discussed painters they liked. Vincent listed a large number of favourites, noting that he could “go on for a while”. In the same letter, they discussex one painting in particular “The Angelus Sur Soire” by Francois Millet. Vincent wrote: “That’s it. That’s rich, That’s poetry”. The phrase “That’s it” was frequently on Vincent’s mind. He repeated it in another letter to Willem and Carolien van Stockum-Haanebeek and again to Theo in 1876. The phrase apparently came from his cousin in law and painter, Anton Mauve, for whom Vincent had great admiration
Vincent takes on a paternalistic tone to his brother in relation to art:
“Like as much as you can, most people don’t like enough. Just keep wandering and adore nature, because that’s the true way to learn to understand the arts more and more. 
Any customer interested in buying prints from Goupil & Cie on Southampton Street must have been intrigued by the charming art-admiring young Dutchman. But before long Vincent’s “project” would unexpectedly change through the mysteries of love.
In August 1874, Vincent wrote to Theo:
I now have a room I have so long wished for. Without sloping beams and without blue wallpaper with green edge. It’s a very enjoyable household where I am now, where they keep a school for “little boys”. 
The address of Vincent’s new room was 87 Hackford Road in Stockwell, his earliest known London residence. He rented a room in the Victorian semi- detached terrace house from a widow, Sarah Ursula Loyer who lived there with her 19 year old daughter Eugenie. Staying with the Loyers was considerably cheaper compared to his previous accommodation and from Stockwell he could walk to work in Covent Garden. Vincent felt at home with the Loyers. In his spare time, he took up gardening. But Vincent’s wasn’t really interested in his flowers or potatoes, a few looks and stolen glances towards Eugenie Loyer and Vincent fell head over heels in love with her.
Eugenie had not been Vincent’s first love. Before leaving the Netherlands he had a very keen interest in Carolien Haanebeek who married a man called Willem van Stockum. Unable to let go, Vincent wrote them both several times during his stay in London. In 1881, Vincent recalled the affair to Theo: “I gave up on a girl and she married someone else, and I went far away from her and kept her in my thoughts anyway. Fatal.” 
When Vincent finally scraped together all the courage he could muster and expressed his love for Eugenie Loyer, it turned out she had hardly noticed his affections and her mother confided with Vincent that Eugenie was already engaged to the previous lodger of his room. The whole affair turned into utter embarrassment.
The household in which he felt so at home turned sour. He returned to the Netherlands and stayed with his parents in Helvoirt, leaving behind “The Big Smoke” of London and the awkward situation he had created. Vincent’s parents took notice of a change in his mood, and they urged Theo to console him. In an attempt to defuse the tension in Stockwell, Vincent returned to London with his sister Anna. She graduated after studying French and was looking for employment. Vincent believed she would be able to work in London, so she stayed with him at 87 Hackford Road.
Vincent’s clumsiness in wooing Eugenie made him question the deeper mysteries of love. He turned to French writer Jules Michelet for insight. Even in 1874, Michelet drew heavy criticism for his outdated and offensive views on women. In the introduction of “L’Amour,” Michelet certainly did not beat around the bush: “While her destiny was made manifest in science, her personality burst upon literature — she has established her personality by a pretended war. — But she only wishes to be loved …” 
Michelet made a deep impression on Vincent. He relished Michelet’s work and thought to have found deep truth in his work. He repeatedly mentions the book to his brother Theo, who also acquired the book on his insistence.
“A book like this finally shows there is more to love than people usually imagine. That book has been a revelation for me and a gospel.” 
Unlike Theo, Vincent would never find love in his life. This was in no part due to his lack of interest or desire. His increasingly frequent mood-swings, and unpredictability made him an unsuitable partner. But increasingly there was also a progressive wind blowing across Europe. ‘Traditional’ images perpetuated by Michelet were in stark contrast to the views of a growing women’s rights movement. Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A vindication of the Rights of Women” was already 82 years old when Vincent stayed with the Loyers. John Stewart Mill’s “The Subjection of Women” (which was published under his name, but was co-written by wife Harriet Taylor Mill.) was published in 1869. Even if Vincent was unaware of these texts in Britain, the Netherlands was also undergoing rapid social reform. Aletta Jacobs was the first woman to study at a Dutch university in 1871 which triggered outrage in the press.
Anna and Vincent continued living with the Loyers for a couple more weeks before moving to an another boarding house in Kennington run by the Parker family. The affair with Eugenie and the Loyers was a watershed moment in Vincent’s London life. The previously cheerful, excited and curious Vincent turned gloomy and depressed. A deep unhappiness befell him. Anna left him after staying with the Parkers for just two weeks, after she found a job in Welvyn. As the autumn set in, daylight would soon disappear before 4 o’clock. Anna occasionally came to visit, but becomes weary of Vincent’s dark mood. Few letters of this period remain, but Vincent’s parents urged his brother Theo to keep in touch with him because “he cannot but feel unhappy now”  . In the letters that Vincent did write he increasingly quoted passages from the bible. In April, Elizabeth Parker, daughter of Mr and Mrs Parker died of Pneumonia. Vincent left the house and walked to Streatham where he made a drawing of the Common.
Somewhere, deeply hidden from Vincent’s wildest imagination, the artist in him was making stirrings. In sudden bursts of creativity he started to draw parts of the city.
Many drawings like the one he made of Streatham Common were lost or destroyed, but in a letter to his sister Anna from1874 he included a drawing of Austin Friars (with its Dutch Church) that did survive. The small drawing has unmistakable Van Gogh qualities, truer to the atmosphere of the place than the architecture of the building. Vincent’s talent certainly did not go unnoticed. His mother wrote to Theo how pleased she was with the drawings she received from him:
“…for us he made a large drawing of the houses they see from their window in London, we are all very happy with them, it’s a wonderful gift, that he can profit from greatly” 
Vincent called these creative outbursts his “teekenlust” or drawing cravings. In a letter to Theo in July 1874 he expresses that his passion has once again deserted him but that perhaps “inspiration will strike again one day” . 
It would take another 6 years before Vincent would dedicate himself to becoming an artist. But before he set out on that path he aspired to do something radically different. He decided he wanted to become a minister.
 From: http://vangoghletters.org/vg/ Letter 018, translated by author. “Having nothing & yet possessing everything”, see 2 Corinthians 6:10
 Vincent van Gogh, Brieven aan zijn broeder. Deel 1 (ed. J. van Gogh-Bonger). Page 9
 Ibid. Page 6
 From: http://vangoghletters.org/vg/ Letter 183, translated by author
Michelet, J. (1859) “L’amour”, P vii.
 Vincent van Gogh, Brieven aan zijn broeder. Deel 1 (ed. J. van Gogh-Bonger). Page 15
 From: http://vangoghletters.org/vg/ Letter 028, footnote 11
 From: http://vangoghletters.org/vg/ Letter 027, footnote 13
 Vincent van Gogh, Brieven aan zijn broeder. Deel 1 (ed. J. van Gogh-Bonger). Page 15