Van Gogh in Ramsgate/Isleworth (1876)
Note: This is part III 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.
Ramsgate, Unsettling Happiness
When Vincent was dismissed by Goupil and Cie in April 1876, his family may have felt like he would really become a liability, and that they would have to pick up the pieces when he returned. But in the weeks after his dismissal, Vincent wrote laconically about paintings, family matters, and the faith. Instead of plunging into a heap of despair, he could finally look ahead. He had broken away from favours towards his uncle and other family expectations. The road ahead was clear. With remarkable speed, he secured himself an unpaid position as an assistant teacher at a boarding school in Ramsgate, England. Why Vincent scoured British newspapers and applied for positions across the Channel is slightly unclear, but Vincent’s time in London had been a happy one. Judging from Vincent’s habit of lingering in the past when it came to former lovers (he kept writing Caroline van Stockum-Haanebeek long after he had been brushed off by her), perhaps he thought that by returning to the United Kingdom he still had a chance with Eugenie Loyer? He had also taken a keen interest in British literature and- as we will explore in this part- John Bunyan. Before he returned to the United Kingdom, he visited his parents in the Netherlands. He left them with a rather emotional goodbye:
“We’ve often parted from each other already, though this time there was more sorrow than before, on both sides, but courage as well, from the firmer faith in, and greater need for, blessing. And wasn’t it as though nature sympathized with us?”¹
On the surface, Vincent’s new career choice as a teacher may seem odd. After all, hadn’t he become obsessed with religion? Why then move to education? But perhaps it is worthwhile taking into consideration his upbringing and the emphasis on religious education from his father’s “Groninger Theology ”, which would-from a theological perspective-make his task worthwhile.
Vincent was taken in by William Port Stokes, a large, bald man with whiskers, who ran the school in Ramsgate where 24 boys were housed. The terrace block stood next to the seaside and according to Vincent, the beauty of it almost made him forget about the bedbugs- which apparently were abundant. Despite the beauty of the location, the school was in a dire state, with rotten floors and feeble lighting. Stokes commanded the boy’s respect, but could sometimes lose his temper, sending them to bed without their supper if they misbehaved. Vincent may have secretly drawn a comparison in his head between Dickens and his new employer. It is easy to imagine Oliver Twist-like scenes at the school-“Please Sir, can I have some more”. A certain melancholy hung around the place. In a letter to Theo, Vincent described a scene of parents leaving the boys behind after their weekend visit. Hands pressed against the cold seaside windows, the children watched the adults leave. Vincent included a drawing he made from that window.
“Many a boy will never forget the view from that window. You should have seen it this week when we had rainy days, especially in the twilight when the street-lamps are being lit and their light is reflected in the wet street.”²
As an assistant teacher, “good for everything” Vincent described his time as “truly happy”, yet he could not wholly settle down and enjoy this happiness he had found. Over the course of the summer, Mr Stokes made it clear to Vincent that he intended to move the school many miles away somewhere along the river Thames. Vincent was invited to join him in Isleworth, close to Richmond, with the prospect of a small salary. After some consideration, he agreed.
Isleworth, “Our life is a pilgrimage”
After following Mr. Stokes and the boys to a new location in Isleworth, Vincent soon made contact with the headmaster of another boarding school just down the road. This school was run by Reverend Thomas Slade-Jones. Slade-Jones, presumably impressed by the minister’s son, offered Vincent a job merely a few weeks after meeting him. Soon Vincent was allowed to teach Sunday school at Slade-Jones’s church in Turnham Green, and after a while, he was even allowed to preach there. Vincent didn’t beat about the bush as to where his ambitions lay in his letters to Theo:
“I’m still a long way from being what I’d like to be, but with God’s help I’ll succeed. What do I want — to be bound to Christ with unbreakable bonds and to feel those bonds. To be sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing.”³
But it wasn’t at Thomas Slade Jones’ church where Vincent was first allowed to preach. His first sermon on Sunday the 29th of October 1876, described by Ronald de Leeuw as “his first work of art”⁴ — painstakingly copied in a letter to Theo⁵ — was delivered in a small Methodist Church in Richmond, on the other side of the river Thames. Vincent could have hardly been more ecstatic about his experience: “Theo, your brother spoke for the first time in God’s house last Sunday.” Like a bedside whisper in the dark, he highlighted his sense of duty, his self-importance and slight disbelief as to the honour that had been bestowed upon him. In Richmond, Vincent was first introduced to the Methodist community. Founded by Wesley, George and John Whitefield, Methodism gained great traction since its foundation in the 18th century among the lesser fortunate members of society, such as labourers, miners, prisoners, and slaves, mainly in the English-speaking world. The Methodists in general were very much involved in pastoral-social work. This aspect of the movement must have felt familiar to Vincent with his “Groninger Theology ” background.
This doesn’t mean that Vincent felt immediately at ease and comfertable with his new pastoral-social work:
“Don’t have too great illusions about the freedom I have; I have my bonds of various kinds, humiliating bonds some of them, and this will only get worse with time; but the words inscribed above Christus Consolator, ‘He is come to preach deliverance to the captives⁶”
His time with the Methodists, was everything but a laid back approach to Christianity. It was hard work, full of obstacles-a pilgrimage. It’s therefore fitting that Vincent’s first sermon in Richmond revolved around John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress”.
Boughton and Bunyan
“The Pilgrim’s Progress from this World, to that which is to come”, is a popular piece of theological fiction written by John Bunyan in 1678. Bunyan, who as a nonconformist preacher was imprisoned in Bedford after the restoration of the monarchy, spent 12 years in prison from which he wrote the book. Its central plot focuses on the character Christian, who travels from “The City of Destruction” (Earth) to “The Celestial City” (Heaven). There are various allegorical characters in the book with multiple parts, like “Hypocrisy” and “Mr. Valiant for Truth”. Vincent first mentioned “The Pilgrim’s Progress” in relation to a painting by George Henry Boughton with the same name:
“Have I ever told you about that painting by Boughton ‘The pilgrim’s progress’? The landscape the road goes through is so beautiful, brown heathland with birches and pine trees here and there, and patches of yellow sand, and mountains in the distance, against the sun. Actually, it’s not a painting but an inspiration.”⁷
Vincent was well aware of Boughton’s work, he saw it on display at the Royal Academy in London in 1874. In fact, Vincent mentioned Boughton in a long list of favourite painters, even though at the time he wrote that he had a distaste for British painters⁸. Interestingly, there is currently no evidence of the existence of a painting by George Henry Boughton called “The Pilgrim’s Progress”. Many scholars believe that Vincent confused the name of the painting and that he was actually referring to another painting by Boughton called “Godspeed! Pilgrims setting out for Canterbury”, (which was at display at the Royal Academy in 1874) because he was reading Bunyan’s “The Pilgrims Progress” at the time. The view is that he simply amalgamated the two. But in a later letter from November 1876, he again referred to the painting as: “…or rather the sketch by Boughton”⁹. Moreover, the way Vincent described the painting with “A woman in Black” and the “Holy City lit by the sun” are neither present on the painting. True, Vincent last saw the painting two years prior and perhaps he had simply forgotten or was unsure about the painting, but Vincent was no casual admirer of the arts, he had been a professional art dealer, whose mind ran on association.
Vincent practically copied his original description of the painting to Theo, in his sermon from October 1876:
“Through the landscape a road leads to a high mountain far far away, on the top of that mountain a city whereon the setting sun casts a glory. On the road walks a pilgrim, staff in hand. He has been walking for a good long while already and he is very tired. And now he meets a woman, a figure in black that makes one think of St Pauls word ‘As being sorrowful yet always rejoicing’.”¹⁰
Vincent’s sermon in the Methodist Church in Richmond, reliant on Boughton and Bunyan (and yes, St. Paul) rested on classic Christian thought central to “The Pilgrims Progress”, which lays more emphasis on the world that is to come than the world we occupy. Vincent sums his sermon up in this fashion:
“And when everyone of us goes back to daily things and daily duties, let us not forget — that things are not what they seem, that God by the things of daily life teacheth us higher things, that our life is a pilgrims progress and that we are strangers in the earth — but that we have a God and Father who preserveth strangers, and that we are all brethren.”
In her book “De God van Vincent” (Vincent’s God), A. Verkade Bruining concludes that Vincent’s Methodist influences of this period would set him up for disaster later in his clerical career because of its emphasis on “self victory and sanctification” which “heavily stressed his own failures”.¹¹
Vincent continued preaching and was eventually allowed to preach in Rev. Thomas Slade-Jones’ church as well. But from Vincent’s letters it becomes clear his parents were starting to worry about his financial position.
“Where do Mr Jones and the others get their income from? Yes, I’ve thought about that many times. Here one often hears it said that God takes care of those who work for Him”¹². Compared to Vincent’s lavish income from Goupil & Cie, he was earning peanuts as a teacher. When he returned home for Christmas 1876, the family decided that he should focus his attention elsewhere and that he should work to earn a decent living in Holland. Before he returned back home, he took a trip to London where he visited his old landlady, Mrs. Loyer, and his former manager at Goupil & Cie, Mr. Orbach. He would never return.
It is worth mentioning first of all, Vincent’s remarkable talent for writing letters. If you have time, it’s well worth reading through some of the letters listed below.
¹From letter 76 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let076/letter.html
²From letter 83 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let083/letter.html
³From letter 89 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let089/letter.html
⁴Ronald De Leeuw, Van Gogh Museum Journal, 1995 https://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_van012199501_01/_van012199501_01_0005.php#094
⁵ For the full text of the sermon, see letter 96 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let096/letter.html
⁶From letter 86 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let086/letter.html
⁷ From letter 89
⁸ See Part I of this series
⁹From letter 99 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let099/letter.html
¹⁰From letter 96
¹¹Verkade-Bruining A, De God van Vincent, Wereldbibliotheek Amsterdam 1989, P. 27
¹²From letter 98 http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let098/letter.html