During a recent visit to The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain at Tate Britain, I came across a small sketch of a church by Vincent Van Gogh, which after reading the accompanying information, I found to my surprise was on Turnham Green. In a glass cabinet about halfway through the exhibition sits a letter which the famous artist wrote to his brother Theo in November of 1876, sent from none other than the Chiswick area! In the letter Van Gogh wrote: ‘In the morning it was so beautiful on the way to Turnham Green, the chestnut trees and clear blue sky and the morning sun were reflected in the water of the Thames, the grass was gloriously green and everywhere all around the sound of church bells’. Vincent’s poetic description of the Green raised many questions in my mind and made me want to investigate the curious link between Van Gogh and the Chiswick area.
The Tate’s exhibition, which ends on August 11, records that as a young man Vincent spent three years in England, spending the last six months living and teaching at a boys school in Isleworth. After doing some digging I found that originally, Van Gogh arrived in England in 1873 at the age of 20, after being sent by his employers, the art dealers Goupil, to work in their London branch. In 1876 Goupil then transferred Vincent to their Paris branch but he was dismissed, which prompted the artist to return to London where he decided to earn his living as a teacher. At the time of his arrival in England, Vincent was going through a period of intense religious fervour. Both his father and grandfather were ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church. Luckily for Van Gogh his desire to teach and his passion for religion were combined when he was offered a teaching job in a school run by Reverend Thomas Slade-Jones in his house at 158 Twickenham Road, Isleworth, to which he was invited to move in on 3 July 1876. Realising, through their time spent together, the level of Vincent’s evangelical commitment, the reverend invited Vincent to help out at his Sunday School in Turnham Green. Van Gogh was excited to become part of the religious community of Chiswick and in a letter to his brother on October 7, Vincent wrote: ‘I shall not have to teach so much in the future, but may work more in the parish, visiting the people, talking with them.’
The church which Vincent had sketched in his letter to his brother was Slade-Jones’ church where he was offered a job, yet it may not look hugely familiar to local residents as the church no longer exists. After some further research I found that Reverend Thomas Slade-Jones established a community of Congregationalists in Chiswick as his attention was drawn to what he described as the ‘spiritually destitute condition of Turnham Green’ in 1873. Originally the Reverend held Sunday services in a lecture room at Turnham Green while funds were being raised to purchase a site on Chiswick High Road and it was after these funds were accumulated that the church in Vincent’s sketch was erected. The church was built in 1875 and was made entirely out of corrugated iron, which was not unusual at the time. A year later, Vincent Van Gogh was given the opportunity to preach at Turnham Green. Van Gogh seemingly impressed Slade-Jones and his colleagues as he was offered a permanent job at the church after his sermon and his duties at the school were taken up by someone else.
Yet sadly Vincent only stayed in Chiswick for 6 months as his mental health began to deteriorate and he returned home to Holland in December of 1876. Although his time in Chiswick was brief, Carol Jacobi, curator of the Van Gogh and Britain exhibition suggested that “the Van Gogh we know was being born in London and this phase of interest in religion prompted his development into the artist he later became”. She told me that despite Van Gogh’s mental health declining whilst he was in London, the area itself “must have been the most extraordinary place for a young man to find himself”. She believes that “the change that turned him into an artist really did start here”, describing how “he was very taken by the beauty of the area”.
But what happened to Vincent’s church after he left? In 1881 the corrugated iron building was replaced by a stone church which was named the Chiswick United Reformed Church and the tin church in which Vincent preached functioned as a Sunday School until it was knocked down in 1909. In 1974 the Chiswick United Reformed Church was also closed and was sadly torn down in the early 1980s. Although the churches no longer stand, Van Gogh’s time in Chiswick has been immortalised with The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam archiving the hundreds of letters which the artist wrote to his family and friends, detailing his love for the Chiswick area. His letters have been published in numerous books, and transcripts of all are available online. If you wish to find out more about Van Gogh’s time in Chiswick his letters are the best place to look. I recommend letters 93, 98 and 99 which were all written whilst the artist was living in Chiswick. In these poetic texts, Van Gogh details the beauty of the area, as well as his ambitions during the time he spent here. Carol Jacobi highly recommends delving into Vincent’s writing as she describes him as “a painter with words” and highlighted in our talk that “what people aren’t aware of is that Van Gogh was a fantastic writer as well as a painter”.
To see the copy of the letter in which Vincent sketched his church on Turnham Green, you can also visit The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain at Tate Britain which runs until August 11.