In search of Vincent
"The Van Gogh Museum is opening in spring 1973. A cover story about Van Gogh, Ken."
That was my assignment from the editor of Holland Herald. There was no briefing, just a deadline.
I decided to take to the road and travel to some of the 20 places in Europe where Vincent lived and worked. He lived in as many places as there are pronunciations of his surname. ‘Van Goff’ in England, ‘Van Go’ in America, ‘Van Geug’ in France. ‘Van Goch’ in his native Netherlands.
Before leaving Amsterdam, I met Vincent’s namesake and nephew, then 82, who had been held in the artist’s arms as a baby. I realised that my journey could perhaps lead to living links with the painter.
At the time, there remained some uncharted parts of his life. His Belgian years and time in England were sketchy. Vincent was 19 when he first travelled to London, in 1872.
I looked at a photograph of him taken around that time. It was not the image of Van Gogh that most people are familiar with. He was clean-shaven, with neat white collar and tie.
As an assistant in the art gallery Goupil in Covent Garden, Vincent was earning more than his father as a minister in The Netherlands. Wearing a top hat ("You can’t live in London without one," he wrote), Vincent gave an impression of middle-class respectability.
He lodged with a family named Loyer in South London and walked to work over Westminster Bridge every day. Occasionally he would stop to make a sketch of something that caught his eye.
His landlady in London, Ursula Loyer, was a widow who lived with her daughter, Eugénie. Lonely and away from home, Vincent fell in love with Eugénie and was captivated by the close relationship that existed between her and her mother. But Eugénie rejected his advances and proposals of marriage. She already had a relationship with a man named Samuel Plowman. This rejection swayed Vincent towards religion and set him on the path that would lead to a total devotion to art. It was an important turning point in his early life. He was fired from Goupil and within months was preaching from the pulpit of a church in Isleworth.
I was curious to find out more about Vincent’s relationship with the Loyers. Where was the house in London? Who lived there now? What happened to Eugénie?
My only lead was a local postman and amateur painter called Paul Chalcroft. During the UK postal strike of 1971, Paul had spent days in archives and traced the Loyer family to 87 Hackford Road, Brixton. It turned out to be not far from his home, but Paul told me he was too shy to knock on the door.
So we went there together.
The building is a three-storey Georgian house, built in 1824. The occupants in 1973, sanitary engineer Arthur Smith and his wife Marjorie, had no idea Van Gogh had lived in their house. The lodger’s room, where Vincent slept, was dilapidated. I took photographs of the house.
The only document I had to go on now was a death certificate of Frank Plowman, Eugénie’s son. It was signed by a Kathleen E Maynard, Biggin Hill, 1966. Did that ‘E’ stand for Eugénie, I wondered? Was she Frank’s daughter and so Eugénie’s granddaughter?
After dozens of telephone calls to Maynards in South London, I finally found a distant relation of Kathleen E Maynard, who told me she now lived in Stoke Gabriel in South Devon with her husband Mortimer. When I called Kathleen, she wondered how I knew so much about her family. She had no idea that Vincent van Gogh had fallen in love with her grandmother 100 years before.
Mrs Maynard told me that she had photographs of her grandmother, taken in the 1800s, and invited me down to Devon. "But I’ll need a day to sift through the rubbish in the attic," she said.
I drove west, to the other side of England.
It was late September and the hedgerows and trees of Devon were mellowing into harlequin tones of autumn. An unlikely place to be tracking down Van Gogh, I thought to myself, as I walked up the pansy-lined garden path to Mrs Maynard’s bungalow.
A charming middle-aged lady in a blue floral dress, Kathleen welcomed me with cucumber sandwiches and tea. As we talked, I could see out of the corner of my eye two long wooden boxes. Protruding from them were bits of greaseproof paper that were used to protect glass negatives. Beside the wooden boxes was a very old cardboard box. "I have scoured the attic for all the photographs I could find," said Kathleen. "You see, my grandfather loved photography and was a very versatile man. And, like me, he was one of these people who kept everything."
She fished out a studio portrait of her grandmother, Eugénie Loyer, standing at a table with a letter in her hand. In the same box was a portrait of Eugénie’s mother, Sarah Ursula Loyer.
The glass negatives showed Eugénie with her family in many different poses, always with a somewhat stern expression. And to my amazement, I pulled out a glass negative showing the lodger’s room at 87 Hackford Road, taken around the time of Vincent’s residence.
I had sifted through the dusty photos and made a selection. As Kathleen was about to pack the rejects into the old box again, I noticed a little drawing lying at the bottom of the box, mingled with a few old family snapshots.
It was a little drawing in pencil, highlighted here and there with what looked like white chalk. It was unsigned and stained a little with tea or coffee.
It was soiled with age and a little frayed at the edges.
I was beginning to feel the same. I felt a troop of caterpillars run up my spine as I realised what I was looking at.
"Do you know what this is?" I asked Kathleen. "No, I don’t know what that’s meant to be exactly," she replied. "It’s been up in the attic for as long as I can remember. I remember Dad saying once that it was drawn by one of his grandmother’s lodgers."
"That’s 87 Hackford Road," I said. "I photographed it two days ago…"
From his mother’s letters I knew that Vincent had the habit of drawing the houses where he lived, and sometimes sent these sketches to his family.
"I think that Vincent could well have drawn this for your grandmother," I said, as casually as possible.
"I…I…I suppose he could have," said Kathleen, her hand groping for the teapot.
There was a long silence. We pored over the drawing like cats around a goldfish bowl. Closer inspection showed the artist had written ‘Hackford Road’ on the wall and ‘Maison Loyer’ on the front gate of the house.
I asked Kathleen if I could take the drawing and photographs to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to have the drawing examined, and she liked the idea. We were so enthused by the events of the afternoon that nothing was signed.
The drawing and photographs, protected with hard cardboard in my leather bag, accompanied me across France and Belgium before I got back to Amsterdam. But the goods remained intact. I slept with them under my pillow at night.
The then director of the Van Gogh Museum, Emile Meijer, found the harvest of my trip "incredible". For an authentication of the drawing, he suggested Dr Hans Jaffé, professor of art history at the University of Amsterdam.
When I delivered the drawing to him, Jaffé was scurrying about his room like a busy little hamster. He told me I would have to wait a few weeks before the result of the examination was complete. They were weeks in which my nails became very short.
On the day the results were due, I fell up the stairs of the university in abnormal haste. Jaffé handed me the report. The last paragraph read:
‘On the grounds of topographical evidence, the origin of the drawing, but especially on the grounds of the style in which this drawing has been made, like the above comparisons, I do not hesitate to accept the drawing shown to me as a work of Vincent van Gogh from his London period 1873-1874. Amsterdam, December 14th, 1972.’
I called Kathleen Maynard to tell her the good news. She was delighted, and agreed to lend the drawing to the Van Gogh Museum, and to present it at the opening in the spring of 1973.
The drawing was in the museum collection for 35 years and shown at the Van Gogh Museum, the Kröller-Müller Museum and at the Barbican in London. Kathleen Maynard died in 2000. Five years ago, her daughter Anne Shaw took it back into possession of the family, where she intends to keep it.
The Loyer home, at 87 Hackford Road, Brixton, has had a blue plaque on the wall commemorating its famous resident for many years. The layout of the three-bedroom house remained unchanged. Although the ceiling of Vincent’s room was caving in, in March 2012 the house was bought at auction by an anonymous ‘admirer of Van Gogh’s work’, complete with outside toilet, for €651,300.
The Van Gogh Museum reopens on 1 May with the exhibition Van Gogh at Work, which runs until 12 January 2014. The Van Gogh File by Ken Wilkie was published by Souvenir Press, London and is available as an e-book: ISBN 9780285636910.