The London house in which famous painter Vincent Van Gogh — subject of a major exhibition at Tate Britain — lived during his twenties is now open the public.
It was only a small period of his life, between 1873 and 1877, and not much evidence of his time in the capital remains. But wander down the side streets of Stockwell and you'll spot a blue plaque at 87 Hackford Road, declaring it his ertswhile residence. The house has recently been refurbished and is now open for guided tours.
When we last visited back in 2014 for an art installation, it was in a semi-dilapidated and somewhat atmospheric state. Now the peeling wallpaper and battered furnishings are gone, and it's a lot more pristine. For anyone worrying about history being erased, it's worth noting this house was lived in by many others before a local postman figured out the Van Gogh link — this discovery was made in 1971 and the blue plaque followed in 1973.
So when the house went up for sale in 2012, James and Alice Wang bought it at auction for £525,000. Art enthusiast and businessman James remarked:
I can't afford a Van Gogh painting but I can afford his house.
In truth, not much remains from the painter's time, though the stairs, and the floorboards and mantelpiece in Van Gogh's room, date from that age. It's why the house needs a guided tour — without the context that the guides provide, there's not a lot to go on. Credit to the new owners for preserving what they can, and new discoveries are still being made. In the attic, builders found a prayer book, and while there's no proof it belonged to Van Gogh, he was a very religious man and the owners of the house weren't so religiously inclined, so it's being kept safely in case it does turn out to be his.
The tour of the house starts at a nearby gallery, before crossing Brixton Road to see the route Van Gogh would've taken to work. He was a keen walker, so he would walk from Stockwell to the art dealer where he worked, on Southampton Street in Covent Garden. He claimed it took him 45 minutes, so he must have walked at a fair clip — Google Maps suggests it would take over an hour.
In Van Gogh's time, the house was owned by mother and daughter Ursula and Eugenie Loyer who ran a small school in the front room and supplemented their income with lodgers. He remarked it was the happiest time of his life — possibly because he became infatuated with a woman, though was subsequently rejected. Early historical records suggested it was with the mother Ursula, but more recent evidence suggests it was more likely her daughter, Eugenie, who was a similar age to Van Gogh.
This unrequited love may have been the reason Van Gogh suddenly left the house and became more religious, moving away from art and towards preaching. His time in this house may have only been a few years but it was an important part of his life, before he became the tortured artist figure we're all familiar with.
Thankfully the new owners want to keep the house as artistic as possible, with plays and temporary exhibitions. The goal is to also have artists-in-residence to create work and channel their own inner Van Gogh, inspired by their predecessor.
Van Gogh House isn't the only recognition of the artist's time in London as just down the road is Van Gogh Walk — a short pedestrianised street filled with community gardens, and a communal library in a small cupboard attached to the wall. It's a lovely detour before we head back into London, though unlike Van Gogh, we'll be taking the Underground.
Van Gogh House may only be visited on a guided tour. Tours run on the last Saturday of every month and start from £10 per person, and there are extended tours that retrace is journey from Covent Garden to the house for £20.