You may have heard that Vincent van Gogh once lived in London. It was 1873. He was nineteen years old and working in Covent Garden as a gallery clerk for the French art dealers Coupil & Cie. It’s interesting to think of the stereotype we know as van Gogh holding down an office job.
Apparently Vincent would walk to work from the room he rented in the home of the Loyer family at 87 Hackford Road, Brixton. It is told that he was forced eventually to quit the room amidst embarassement because he had developed an intense but unrequited passion for Eugenie Loyer, his landlady’s daughter. The story of van Gogh’s time at Hackford Road is, ultimately, a tragic one.
Now though the house boasts of its former occupant with a blue plaque. A nearby street has been pedestrianised, renamed from Isabel to Van Gogh Walk, trees have been planted and stone cut with the painters inspiring words about nature, taken from his letters. It’s very nice.
The house itself is derelict, unoccupied since 2012 and Saskia Olde Wolbers has taken advantage of this to turn the property into a talking archive for Artangel. We wander across floorboards once trod by the painter who died in poverty and angst but whose works now change hands for millions. The linoleum is patchy, ceilings held up with scafolding poles, wallpaper mouldy and peeling. Do we feel a little thrill of discovery? A soupson of excitement as we brush shoulders with the intimate side of art historical celebrity? This is not just sunflowers in a national gallery, there for anyone to see. This is where the great genius folded his socks, this is where he slept and where he wept. Here we are an insider. Perhaps.
The voice over is spoken in the first person by the house itself. We follow the voice from room to room struggling to make sense of its stories, overlapping and interwoven tales that cross and re-cross time from the 1870s to the 1970s. Various characters are given voice and we hear the sound of a river rushing by. It’s difficult to make sense of. The narrative jumps and slips, clarity and resolution are determinedly elusive. Here and there we find clues: ornaments, forgotten photographs, scattered newspaper sheets. Ultimately these clues are meaningless, red herrings, nothing more.
Without the blue plaque it is said that 87 Hackford Road and parts of the surrounding area would have found themselves demolished years ago. The myth of van Gogh saved them. What would this work have been without his story? For how long can we feed ourselves on one man’s tragic tale? Perhaps these are the questions the work itself asks. Perhaps.
In 2012 the house was bought at auction by violinist come business man James Wang for a reported £565,000. He claims he bought the house to protect it and plans to invite contemporary Chinese artists to the space to “look after them, have an exhibition, promote them and so on…. I’m a very emotional person because I’m an artist myself. I cannot afford to buy his paintings, so I buy his house!” And so the stories go on.