Vincent van Gogh and his 100-mile walk to Welwyn

Vincent van Gogh

Did you know about Vincent van Gogh's walk to Welwyn? - Credit: Flickr

Now one of art’s most celebrated figures, Vincent van Gogh’s life was one of tragedy and failure. But long before he wanted to be an artist, he came to England for work, and even visited Welwyn. 

After an original spell in London in 1873, working for an art dealer, van Gogh returned to England three years later, moving to Ramsgate. 

He worked in an unpaid role as a supply teacher at Mr Stokes Boarding School in the Kent town, but he wasn’t the only van Gogh working in education in England at the time.

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh lived in England in 1873 and 1876. - Credit: Flickr

His sister, Anne, worked as a French teacher at the preparatory school at Ivy Cottage in Welwyn. 

Desperately wanting to visit his sister, but in poverty and nearly 100 miles away, Vincent decided to walk, setting out for London on June 12, 1876. 

His journey was recorded in letters to his brother Theo. 

“Last Monday I left Ramsgate for London,” he wrote.  

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“That’s a long walk indeed, and when I left it was awfully hot and it remained so until the evening, when I arrived at Canterbury.  

“That same evening, I walked a bit further until I came to a couple of large beeches and elms next to a small pond, where I rested for a while.  

“In the morning at half past three the birds began to sing upon seeing the morning twilight, and I continued on my way. It was good to walk then.  

“In the afternoon I arrived at Chatham, where, in the distance, past partly flooded, low-lying meadows, with elms here and there, one sees the Thames full of ships. It’s always grey weather there, I think.  

“There I met a cart that brought me a couple of miles further, but then the driver went into an inn and I thought he might stay there a long time, so I walked on and arrived towards evening in the well-known suburbs of London.”

Vincent van Gogh

A plaque at Ivy Cottage marks van Gogh's walk to Welwyn. - Credit: Facebook

Now just over 25 miles from Welwyn, van Gogh decided to stay a few nights in London, but not out of choice. 

“I spent one night at Mr Reid’s and the next at Mr Gladwell’s, where they were very, very kind,” wrote Vincent. 

“I wanted to leave for Welwyn that evening, but they literally held me back by force because of the pouring rain.  

“However, when it had let up somewhat, around four in the morning, I set out for Welwyn.” 

Describing his arrival in Welwyn, he continued: “In the afternoon at 5, I was with our sister and was very glad to see her. 

“She looks well and you would be as pleased with her room as I am, with ‘Good Friday’, ‘Christ in the Garden of Olives’, ‘Mater Dolorosa’ and with ivy around them instead of frames.  

“A handshake in thought from your loving brother, Vincent”

Anne was delighted to see her brother, herself writing: “It was delightful meeting Vincent again, and I am glad he is meeting them here too, for no-one can imagine what a happy life I lead here, surrounded by so much love.”

Anthony Padgett with his Van Gogh sculpture. Picture: Anthony Padgett.

Anthony Padgett with his Van Gogh sculpture. Picture: Anthony Padgett. - Credit: Archant

It is believed Vincent only visited his sister in Welwyn on this one occasion, staying in the village for two days before heading to Isleworth where he continued teaching. 

His walk to Welwyn was marked in 2018 when a bust of his head was installed in the village by sculptor Anthony Padgett. 

Leaving England in 1877, van Gogh went to live in Amsterdam and then Cuesmes, Belgium, where he decided to become an artist. 

Many of his renowned paintings focused on people and the world around him, with his time in England acting as an inspiration. 

“The countryside here is magnificent, completely different from Holland or Belgium,” he wrote in a letter to Theo. 

“Everywhere one sees splendid parks with tall trees and shrubs, where one is allowed to walk.”

The Starry Night (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh painted Starry Night while in an asylum. - Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Despite painting almost 900 paintings in less than 10 years, he would be branded a failure, selling just one piece of work during his life, The Red Vineyard, which sold for 400 francs in Belgium seven months before his death. 

He was also called mad, famously cut off his ear lobe after suffering a mental breakdown and subsequently spending time in an asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, France, where he painted most of his famous works – including Starry Night. 

His life would come to a tragic end in July of 1890, when he is believed to have shot himself in the chest with a 7mm Lefaucheux pinfire revolver before dying from his injuries two days later, aged just 37. 

A commercial failure during his lifetime, van Gogh is now rightfully loved and celebrated as one of art’s greats. 

Although his near 100-mile walk from Ramsgate to Welwyn was long before he picked a paint brush full-time, it acted as an inspiration for what was to come. 

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