Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend time in a room that was once inhabited by a famous artist? I’m not talking about a museum or a stately home, but about a private family home not normally open to the public. How atmospheric would it be? Would you feel the presence of that past inhabitant?
Ramsgate was home to Vincent van Gogh in 1876, he was twenty-three and taught at a boys school located in Spencer Square. He, another master and four boys boarded at a house further round the square and it is his room, in this house that I was given the opportunity to style.
Vincent was a prolific letter writer – the letters were published some years ago – so the homeowner could pinpoint very easily from his own words which room had been his and I had a hunch that if we opened the room as a fundraiser and part of a wider event celebrating van Gogh being held in the square, people would be interested enough to want to see it.
The homeowner was really enthusiastic about bringing Vincent’s room to life and we spent quite a bit of time analysing his letters to decide what we needed to highlight and what we could downplay. As the room no longer has a fireplace and has modern fitted carpet, there were certain aspects of the bedroom that were definitely not true to period, so we had to work with those and create something that would enable people to see past the current family use and back to a time when the property was a boarding house for a boys school. There would have been no electricity, possibly gas lighting and possibly running water to the scullery in the lower ground floor. Each room would have been heated by a wood/coal fire. Other than the views described by Vincent in his letters from his window “looking over the rooftops,” that would have been it for creature comforts. His bed would probably have been narrow and the mattress thin. As he was a young man when he resided here, perhaps this didn’t matter and was just part of the experience. We know from his letters that, “these are happy times, these days in Ramsgate,” it’s nice to think that for someone so troubled by mental illness in his later life, for this time at least, he enjoyed where he was and what he was doing.
This is the first time this house has been open to the public and as I spent time quietly in Vincent’s old room, dusting picture frames and polishing glass, I felt a real sense of sadness that this great artist is remembered more for his turbulent life and ‘cutting off his ear,’ than for the relationships he had with those he held dear – and for the skill and knowledge he had of his medium.
Being in this room, Vincent’s personal space when he was just starting out; there are only two pen and wash drawings from his time in Ramsgate, made me feel that we’re doing him a huge disservice. As we all become so much more aware of the invisible pain of mental illness, I think it’s important to remember that van Gogh, like all suffers, was more complex and diverse than just the fragility of his mental state. His use of colour and the landscape around him was joyful and intense, he created what he saw from the inside of it, it wasn’t just a casual observation. He wanted to express the way those things – colour and subject – made him feel. The body of work he left behind is not just the product of a troubled mind, but of an analytical, technically gifted paint experimentalist.
To call him and the other modernist, impressionist and post-impressionist painters artists doesn’t acknowledge the way they pushed their medium to its limits. Only a couple of decades earlier, painting was about faithful representation; the skill of the artist was in creating the accurate likeness of the subject. That changed in the mid nineteenth century when artists wanted to express what they thought about the subject matter by making the texture of the paint part of the visual honesty of the painting. It was challenging to the viewer and it wasn’t immediately popular – but it opened people’s minds to the idea that paint is a component of art; it is not invisible and the way it is manipulated is a skill that should be celebrated in its own right.
Van Gogh more than celebrated his paint, he revelled in it. We can feel in his work the heat of the sun, the sparseness of the bedroom, the shade from the brim of his hat. It is this translation of feeling to canvas, the directional movement of his brushstrokes and the quality of his paint colour that makes his work universally recognisable and for that courage of purpose, we should remember him.