Vincent van Gogh's London home up for auction


25 March 2012

The Brixton house where the artist lived as a young man is all the better for being in need of modernisation.

"I'm getting on well here", Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in January 1874. "I've got a lovely home ..."

On Tuesday that very home – in Brixton, London SW9 – will go under the hammer, having been put on the market for the first time in 65 years. The Guardian went to view the property at 87 Hackford Road on a crisply sunny spring day that would have delighted Van Gogh himself.

In the letter, he advised Theo: "Do go on doing a lot of walking and keep up your love of nature, for that is the right way to understand art better and better. Painters understand nature and love her ..."

Amazing that Van Gogh probably wrote those words in this suburban house where dry unkempt plants – like something from one of his tangled paintings of the asylum garden that would later become his only patch of nature – contrast with the flaking white paint of the house front, and the ceramic blue of its proud plaque declaring that Vincent van Gogh, painter, lived here 1873–1874.

Inside the Grade II listed building, yellowing sheets from ancient editions of the Salvation Army's newspaper, the War Cry, float on battered floorboards. Cobweb-covered plastic fruits hang in the kitchen. Ceilings on the upper floors hang down, ruptured, revealing slipped roof timbers. But everywhere you look amid the decay, traces of Vincent van Gogh impose themselves

The house, as Savills auctioneers put it in their catalogue, is "in need of modernisation". Yet the fact it has never been converted into a plush modern home means that raw Victorian archaeology survives just beneath the rotting linoleum and decrepit wallpaper.

The shape of the interior from the Victorian days when Van Gogh lived here is clear in its layout of front and back bedrooms, each with its own cast-iron fireplace. Van Gogh must have warmed himself before these fires after his winter walks.

Presumably he also made his way to the outside toilet, which survives in all its glory. There are some (modern) gardening tools propped up next to the vintage porcelain receptacle, ready to make some inroads on the overgrown, matted garden of nettles, shrubs and a few little blue flowers.

Again, the colours of a Van Gogh painting come to mind – and in fact, in one of his letters home from Hackford Road, he describes planting flowers and shrubs in this very garden. Could a couple of these plants be descended from his seedlings?

Van Gogh came to work in London for the art dealer Goupil & Cie in 1873. He was 20, with his mature life as an artist years in the future. The dealers' premises were in Covent Garden, and he walked home from work every evening, for he was a lifelong lover of romantic pedestrianism.

But the idyllic life he seems to have enjoyed for a time in this house was not to last. Its black iron fireplaces and large sash windows witnessed his first great heartbreaking experience of love.

The intense and romantic Dutch lodger was deeply attracted to Eugénie Loyer, the 19-year-old daughter of his landlady. His love spills over into his letters as he transcribes Keats's poem of love and desire, The Eve of St Agnes, and an even more heated Romantic work by Michelet on the Mystery That Is Woman.

But his interest was totally unrequited and became deeply embarrassing. Van Gogh's sister Anna moved in with him, but soon both Van Goghs were forced to leave for new lodgings in Kennington.


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