By Gillian Clegg
Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal 10 (2001)
When he was a young man, artist Vincent van Gogh spent three years in England, the last six months living and teaching at a boys’ school in Isleworth. While there he also became closely involved with the Congregational church in Chiswick. Van Gogh’s letters and the church’s own records enable us to piece together some details about his brief time in our area.
Van Gogh arrived in England in 1873 when he was 20 years old. He was sent by his employers, Goupil, art dealers based in the Hague, to work in their London branch. In 1876 Goupil sent him to Paris but then dismissed him. Van Gogh returned to England and decided to earn his living as a teacher.
His first post was in Ramsgate, teaching at a boys’ school run by a Mr Stokes. Two months later, in June 1876, Mr Stokes moved his school to Isleworth (Linkfield House, 183 Twickenham Road). Van Gogh moved with the school as Mr Stokes had promised him a salary at the end of his trial period. In this, though, he was to be disappointed, as he writes in a letter to his brother Theo: ‘Mr Stokes says that he definitely cannot give me any salary because he can get teachers enough for just board and lodging, and that is true. But will it be possible for me to continue in this way. I am afraid not; it will be decided soon enough.’
Luckily for van Gogh another boys’ school just down the road was looking for a teacher and was willing to pay a salary of £15 per year plus board and lodging. This school was run by the Reverend Thomas Slade-Jones in his house, Holme Court, at 158 Twickenham Road, Isleworth (the house, which is still there, was built in 1715). Van Gogh moved in on 3 July 1876 and was given a third-floor room at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. Once term started van Gogh was busy; he taught the boys in the morning and often looked after the Slade-Jones’s own six children in the afternoon. When evening came, van Gogh put the boarders to bed and read them stories. However, as he complained to Theo, the boys often fell asleep before he finished, which he surmised was due to his Dutch accent: ‘I do not speak without difficulty; how it sounds to English ears, I do not know’
Vincent seems to have liked, and been liked by, the Slade-Jones family. In a letter to a friend he describes the Rev Slade-Jones as ‘a venerable man with a big grey beard’ and says he had a ‘special knack of fascinating those boys from the London slums with his stories; in the evening, in the poor light of that schoolroom, all those different faces, and the picturesque figure of that old man, all made a deep impression on me.’
The Rev Thomas Slade-Jones was not just an Isleworth headmaster, he was also a practising church minister in Turnham Green. He was the moving spirit behind the establishment of a Congregational community in Chiswick and the building of a ‘tabernacle’ there. According to Slade-Jones, in the Summer of 1873 his attention was drawn to the ‘spiritually destitute condition of Turnham Green’. After conferring with other ministers and lay brethren from the neighbourhood, he decided to commence Sunday services. Initially these were held in the ‘Lecture Room’ at Turnham Green. This was an outbuilding of a large property on the western side of Turnham Green (where Arlington Park Mansions is now) which later became known as The Chestnuts but which had formerly been an asylum.
By the time van Gogh arrived in Isleworth, Slade-Jones and his fellow workers had raised the money to purchase a freehold site in the Brentford Road (Chiswick High Road) extending backwards towards Arlington Gardens. On the front of this site an iron church was built (opened 21 September 1875).
Van Gogh, the son and grandson of ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church, was going through a period of intense religious fervour in 1876 and was considering working for the church in some capacity. He regularly attended evening services in the Methodist church at Richmond and the small Methodist chapel at Petersham, and preached his first ever sermon at the Richmond church on 29 October 1876. Van Gogh was truly ecumenical declaring that: ‘In every church I see God, and it’s all the same to me whether a protestant pastor or a Roman Catholic priest preaches … ‘.
Slade-Jones, realising the extent of van Gogh’s evangelical commitment, suggested he might like to help out at the church Sunday School in Turnham Green. In a letter to Theo on 7 October, Vincent writes: ‘I shall not have to teach so much in the future, but may work more in the parish, visiting the people, talking with them.’ On 10 November he tells Theo that he is becoming more involved with the Chiswick Congregational Church now that a new assistant had joined the school. Two days later, on ‘a really English rainy day’, Vincent had taken Sunday school at Turnham Green and gone on for afternoon tea with the sexton.
The following Sunday the weather was pleasant and Vincent describes to Theo his walk to the Church: ‘It was so beautiful on the road to Turnham Green – the chestnut trees and the clear blue skies and the morning sun mirrored in the water of the Thames. The grass was sparkling green and one heard the sound of church bells all around.’ Van Gogh loved long walks. In another letter to Theo he tells how returning from London one evening he had taken a bus to Chiswick and walked to Isleworth: ‘I passed Mr Jones’s little church and saw another in the distance with the light still burning at that hour; I entered and found it to be a very beautiful little Catholic church where a few women were praying’ . This was presumably St John’s church in Boston Park Road, Brentford (built 1866), since this is the only Catholic church known at that time between Chiswick High Road and Isleworth.
Van Gogh’s work for the Chiswick church is recorded in the Sunday School Minutes of the church (these and other early records only came to light in 1963 when cupboards had to be cleared because of burst water pipes). On 19 November the Turnham Green Teachers’ Meeting records that ‘Mr Vincent van Gof’ was accepted as a ‘co-worker’. The same meeting also decided that services for the young should be held ‘so that the influence gained by the teachers on the scholars might be strengthened’. Vincent writes to Theo about this: ‘There are children enough but the difficulty is to get them together regularly,’
A fortnight later, on 4 December, van Gogh seconded a motion that a children’s service be held every Thursday evening. Another motion decided that ‘it be optional with teachers whether they visit their own scholars or Mr Vincent visit them’. Finally it was agreed that ‘Mr Vincent be supplied with all the names and addresses of the scholars in the school and that he go round to each class for particulars of those who require visiting’. (Van Gogh preferred to be known by his christian name because foreigners so frequently misspelt or mispronounced his surname.)
This, though, was to be the extent of van Gogh’s activity in Chiswick. On 20 December he returned home to Holland for the Christmas holidays. He was not in good shape. To his parents he appeared unwell, depressed, lonely and obsessed by religion. They advised him not to return to England and Vincent agreed. On 21 Jan 1877 he wrote to Slade-Jones and his wife, telling them he was not coming back, and as he tells Theo: ‘ … unintentionally the letter became rather long – out of the fullness of my heart – I wished them to remember me and asked them to wrap my recollection in the cloak of charity.’
The last mention of van Gogh in the Chiswick church records is on 5 Feb 1877 when the Teachers Meeting ‘resolved that Mr Vincent be written to be asked for his resignation as he had left the country’.
It was not until the 1880s that van Gogh realised his true vocation as an artist, and by this time his religious faith had begun to wane. As for the Congregational Church at Turnham Green, the Reverend Slade-Jones raised funds to build a stone church with seats for 500 on the site in 1881 (van Gogh’s tin ‘tabernacle’ served as a Sunday School until it was demolished in 1909). This church became the Chiswick United Reformed Church and was closed in 1974 and demolished in the early 1980s to make way for the office block known as Bond House.
Sources Used: Chiswick High Road Congregational Church Illustrated Monthly Magazine, 1890; Young Vincent by Martin Bailey, 1990; English Influences on Vincent van Gogh, exhibition catalogue edited by Ronald Pickvance, 1974.
Gillian Clegg is a writer and editor. Her books include Chiswick Past, Clapham Past and The Archaeology of Hounslow. She is the editor of the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal.
With thanks to William Roe for the idea.