Think of Vincent van Gogh and you might picture him among the studios and galleries of Antwerp or Montmartre, or more likely in the bright Mediterranean sunshine of Arles. You probably don’t imagine one of the world’s most celebrated artists in Stockwell, a grey south London district most notable for its air-raid shelter and the size of its bus garage.
But Van Gogh, I now know, once lived here, in a pleasant but unexciting Georgian terrace, just behind the Tesco Express on the Clapham Road. And the history of 87 Hackford Road and its illustrious former resident is about to become better known — the house has been restored and will open to the public for small group tours next week.
The house was “discovered” in 1971, when an on-strike postman named Paul Chalcroft filled his spare time with investigative work, tracking the address from a landlady mentioned in one of Van Gogh’s letters. A commemorative blue plaque was duly fitted, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the house was bought at auction by James Wang, a former professional violinist who studied music in China during the Cultural Revolution when Vincent van Gogh was one of the few celebrated western artists.
Then, the exterior wall would apparently sway if you pushed on the chimney and there were linoleum floors, polystyrene ceiling tiles and an outside toilet. Wang entrusted its restoration to his daughter, recent architecture graduate Livia, and when I arrive an army of builders, craftsmen and artists-in-residence are putting the finishing touches to the place.
Somebody is hanging handblown glass lampshades; original floorboards from the 1824 building have been repurposed as an attic door; a new ceiling rose has been moulded by a plasterer, based on an original design found in a neighbouring house. The aim though, Livia explains, is not to replicate the house as it was when Van Gogh stayed as a lodger from 1873-1874, but to create an ongoing, organic working space for the arts. An extension and garden studio are being completed to allow artists to work and live here.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what that word museum means,” she tells me, “because we really don’t want it to be somewhere that stops in time.”
We know relatively little about Van Gogh’s time here, except that he wrote a couple of letters, drew a sketch of the building and, seemingly like every other renter in south London today, worked as a gallery intern on a meagre salary (80 per cent of which went on food and board.) He walked to work in Covent Garden along Brixton Road.
“Things are going well for me here,” the artist wrote to his brother Theo in January 1874. “I have a wonderful home and it’s a great pleasure for me to observe London and the English way of life.” According to the curators, it was also here that the 20-year-old Van Gogh fell in love for the first time, with Eugenie Loyer, the 19-year-old daughter of his landlady.
Artefacts left by the house’s previous resident are preserved regardless of their place in the canon. I’m shown a box of scraps of paper that had been squirrelled away in the eaves and under floorboards by past inhabitants, and have now been restored by conservation students at the nearby Camberwell College of Arts. Acorns, spinning tops, marbles, clay pipes and handwriting samples were found, as well as a prayer book and the business card of the house’s original builder. Part of the bomb shell that destroyed the neighbouring houses was dug from the garden.
Insurance documents from the period Van Gogh lived here were recovered from the attic when the roof was replaced. Ursula Loyer, the widowed landlady, had to amend the printed documents with a handwritten ‘s’ after each instance of ‘Mr’. All of these will be displayed at the house in cabinets being assembled by a local furniture maker.
“We wouldn’t want anybody to think these were less worthy because they weren’t to do with Van Gogh,” says Wang. “So many of these places become too precious, when really the house next door is exactly the same. Nobody cares about it but this one is Grade II listed.” So comically famous, one-eared Van Gogh might not have had much impact on Stockwell, but he’s a rather nice way to talk about the history of ostensibly unremarkable lives and buildings.
Guided tours of the Van Gogh House cost £15 per adult and start at the nearby San Mei Gallery on Loughborough Road
Get alerts on UK holidays when a new story is published