Vincent Van Gogh 30 March 1853-29 July 1890 - self portrait: As an Artist

In January 2010 a major exhibition opened at the Royal Academy in London and ran until that April. It examined the work of Vincent Van Gogh in relation to the countless letters written throughout his adult life. Many of those letters showed quite a different side to his character - so often portrayed as the tortured depressive who pickled himself in absinthe, cut off his ear in a spate of passion after an argument with Gaugin, and finally shot himself in the chest in a badly bungled suicide; after which he took two days to die. 

Most of the letters shown were addressed to his brother, Theo (above) whose profession was that of an art dealer. But, the existence of the exhibition, which was five years in the making and which displayed around 65 paintings and 30 connected drawings, was largely due to Theo's wife.

Photograph of the graves of Theo and Vincent Van Gogh ©Suzette Raymond

Widowed six months after Vincent's death when her husband succombed to the complications of syphillis (the two brothers are buried side by side in graves situated in Auvers-sur-Oise), Johanna Van Gogh carefully preserved every one of her brother-in-law's letters. And rather than disposing of what were then the unsaleable pictures that Theo had collected and stored, she devoted the rest of her life to promoting Vincent's talent and work.

Johanna Van Gogh

The RA exhibited some 40 letters, many in such a fragile state that it's highly unlikely that they will be exhibited publicly again. Many of them contained sketches of paintings that Vincent was planning to make in the future, and what is particularly interesting is that, whereas the paintings we know so well are full of thick and vibrant strokes, many of the smaller preparatory works were very precisely executed with fine straight lines and an element of realism: quite different to the Impressionist style of the larger canvasses. 

Visitors were even able to view a letter found in his pocket after he had shot himself. It is splattered with either paint or blood, and the words that Vincent wrote there were: “I risk my life for my own work and my reason has half foundered in it  -”

Many of the artist's earlier letters are made up of thoughtful and eloquent prose. We 'see' a cultivated man who is clearly well-read and whose words convey poetic imagery. He describes the light shimmering on the sea -“like a mackerel ... always changing — you don’t always know if it’s green or purple — you don’t always know if it’s blue — because a second later its changing reflection has taken on a pink or grey hue...”

Of his paintings of Cypress trees, he said: "The cypresses still preoccupy me, I’d like to do something with them like the canvases of the sunflowers, because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them. [The cypress is] beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a distinguished quality. It’s the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape, but it’s one of the most interesting dark notes... they must be seen here against the blue, in the blue, rather."

Imagine talking to the man filled with such inspired enthusiasm!

But, sadly, there were too many dark moments to balance out such joy. Even as a youth Vincent possessed a serious, brooding, troubled look. As a young man his first employment was with a firm of art dealers; his profession taking him to England and Paris. But, a series of disappointing affairs along with an increasing dissatisfaction with the unscrupulous art world, led him to contemplate life as a preacher - the same profession as his father. 

That ambition was doomed to failure when the exams were botched, though Vincent did work as a missionary in Belgium and there he produced The Potato Eaters - which was his first major painting. Like many of the earlier works, this was not a blazing of light, but suffused in dark and earthy tones which echoed the paintings of Rembrant. Vincent was also influenced by the prints reproduced in English magazines that showed the toil of the working man. He was to purchase a ten-year run of the popular magazine The Graphic, simply to study such gritty scenes which he then attempted to emulate.

 The Potato Eaters 1885-6

It was when Vincent travelled to the south of France that his obsession with colour began. Inspired by the French Impressionists he had hopes of founding a community of artists, but his sense of inadequacy and increasingly violent moodswings were far from condusive to such harmonious living arrangements. Even so, despite his "sounds and strange voices...that cannot but frighten you beyond measure", the time he went on to spent in an asylum did offer some security. Vincent said that the close proximity of other mad people was somehow reassuring. It became his daily routine to set up his easel and paint - either the hospital gardens or the surrounding countryside, producing swirling images of corn fields and olive groves.


In the few years before his death, Vincent was to move to Arles where he rented 'the Yellow House' - another subject of his paintings, about which he was to write: "That's a really difficult subject! But I want to conquer it for that very reason. Because it's tremendous, these yellow houses in the sunlight and then the incomparable freshness of the blue." 

Well, however hard the task, there can be no doubt that Vincent succeeded in his ambition. And, how poignant it is that the art that went unappreciated during the course of his lifetime is now considered to be amongst the world's most sought-after and lauded art.

The Real Van Gogh exhibition was curated by Ann Dumas. In this short BBC film you can hear her thoughts and view some more of the works on display.

If you have more interest in the letters of Van Gogh, Thames and Hudson have published them in a six-volume edition of books. They can also be viewed online at http://www.vangoghletters.org/.



Back in 1824 John Cadbury (see left) opened a grocery shop in Birmingham's Bull Street, in what was then a fashionable and prosperous area. But John was no ordinary shopkeeper. He was a devout Quaker involved in the early anti-slavery movement. He was a campaigner for social reform hoping to end poverty and deprivation. Being a member of the Temperance Society he sold non-alcoholic beverages and, as a sideline, John produced his own brand of drinking chocolate - a beverage then  popular across Europe, though still very much a luxury afforded only by the rich.

With beans imported from South or Central America, John used his own pestle and mortar to grind them up and produce 'the block' from which the chocolate could then be scraped before being added to hot water or milk - as advised in a recipe dating back to the 1600's, brought to England by the doctor Sir Hans Sloane who himself had been introduced to the drink while travelling in Jamaica.

The Milk Chocolate drink proved a great success, added to which the price of raw beans was being reduced due to many new plantations being established in the West Indies, the Far East, and India. Having a flair for promotion, John Cadbury had the 'exotic' idea of posting a Chinaman on his counter and having him dressed in full national costume. He then placed an advertisement in the Birmingham Gazette that read: 'John Cadbury is desirous of introducing to particular notice 'Cocoa Nibs', prepared by himself, an article affording a most nutritious beverage for breakfast.'

Advertisement showing Queen Victoria drinking Cadbury's Cocoa - a royal warrant for the product was awarded in 1854.

Soon John's brother Benjamin  joined him as a partner. A factory was rented to enable mass production, and when the government took the step of lowering import duties the luxury of Cadbury's chocolate was affordable for everyone.

A young George Cadbury

By 1861 when John was suffering from ill health the business was taken over by his two sons, Richard and George - the latter then visiting Holland and purchasing a cocoa press, a new and far more efficient method of extracting the fat from the beans.

In 1866, Cadbury's 'Cocoa Essence' was launched, acclaimed as being  'Absolutely pure - therefore best.' Many more adverts followed on extolling the purity of the product, along with its health-giving properties. Campaigns often featured virile sportsmen such as golfers and rugby players - or the handsome mustachioed rower below.

The company continued to prosper and by 1878 several acres of land had been purchased on the outskirts of Birmingham. Known as the Bournbrook Estate this was to be the home of the new Cadbury's Bournville factory. But it was not until 1897 that the first milk chocolate bar was manufactured - the recipe created by adding dried milk powder to cocoa solids, cocoa butter and sugar.

The Bournville factory

Whatever the success and expansion the company founder's firm beliefs in principled capitalism were not to be forgotten. Cadbury's philanthropic ambitions were diligently retained, all factory workers  treated with respect, and those who worked on the Bournville estate offered housing and education, even medical care and pension schemes.

No doubt that is why there was such debate with regard to Kraft's recent take-over bid- and whatever one's view on that matter could the Victorian John Cadbury ever have imagined that the grocery shop he once opened up would result in a business empire valued at £11.9 billion and employing a global workforce of 45,000 staff?



Muybridge (1830-1904)

Eadweard Muybridge was born in Kingston on Thames in 1830 - at which point he bore the somewhat duller name of Edward James Muggeridge.

At the age of 22 he left England for America to seek his fame and fortune. He first worked in New York as a bookbinder's agent and then moved on to San Francisco where his interest in photography bloomed. Using a mobile darkroom that was christened The Flying Studio, he produced stunning stereoscopic views and also beautiful landscapes, such as this one from within a volcano…

But the greater fame that Muybridge desired was found when he came to be hired by the railroad baron, Leland Stanford, a passionate racing horse breeder who commissioned the photographer to solve the age old argument as to the whether or not a running horse ever lifts all of its four feet from the ground - and Muybridge was to prove that it did!

The ingenius method that Muybridge used was to set up several cameras, each one with its shutter attached to a thread. As the horse then passed by and broke each thread an instant exposure was produced.

The public were amazed to see the results, and Muybridge went on to develop his art, producing a substantial body of work which was published into books entitled Animal Locomotion and The Human Figure in Motion.

 Muybridge's study of wrestlers

Francis Bacon's 'Two Fighters'

Such systematic studies of the science of animal motion went on to inspire Francis Bacon, as seen in the painting above. But in his own time Muybridge's work also inspired early film makers - many of whom would have been aware of his development of the Zoopraxiscope. 

This involved printing a series of images onto a circular base which was then made to spin around so as to give the illusion of movement. In other words, animation. What led on to the art of moving film.

A Zoopraxiscope - click here to see the couple dancing

Such a sweet and romantic picture can be seen in the images above. But, Muybridge's own private life was beset by violence and tragedy.

He married somewhat late in life to Flora, a young woman half his age. And while Muybridge was often absent, travelling the land with his cameras, Flora was wooed and her virtue won by a certain Major Harry Larkyns.

When Muybridge discovered the affair he went to visit Larkyns in person, confronting his rival with the words: "Good evening, Major, my name is Muybridge and here is the answer to the letter you sent my wife."

The answer was a bullet. The major was shot dead on the spot.

There followed a murder trial but Muybridge was acquited on grounds of justifiable homicide when his lawyers successfully argued that a head injury from some years before had affected their client's rationality.

For Flora the nightmare had only begun. She was pregnant, and a baby boy was born and named Florado. But when her husband refused to believe that this child could be his natural son the grieving woman was forced to endure the shameful stigma of divorce, soon after which she was to die while suffering from typhoid.

Still Muybridge showed no compassion. Florado was sent to an orphanage. But how terribly cruel and ironic it was that when 'Floddie' had grown to be man, when he worked as a ranch hand and gardener, he was said to bear an uncanny resemblance to the famous Eadweard Muybridge.

That unhappy period in Muybridge's life has more recently inspired an opera by Philip Glass. Composed in 1982, The Photographer's libretto is drawn from transcripts of the trial, and letters that Muybridge wrote to his wife.  Act 1 - A Gentleman's Honour - can be heard on youtube.

In his later life Muybridge returned to Kingston on Thames where he died in 1904, bequeathing his original equipment and prints to the Kingston Museum.

Stephen Herbert also has an interesting blog based around the photographer's life and works.

And finally, this is Muybridge's historic animated view of a buffalo galloping over the plains.

You can watch the moving image here



The Diary of a Murder is the latest Victorian crime novel by the acclaimed author Lee Jackson (see left). Unlike Lee's six previous novels, this story has been published online as an e-book. You can read it by clicking onto this link, and what's more it is absolutely free though if you enjoy it - and the VV is sure that you will - you can, at your own discretion, make a donation via Paypal. Alternatively, and for a nominal fee, Lee will supply an electronic version suitable to be read on Kindles etc. And, if you would still prefer a paper copy, Lee may be producing a small 'on demand' print run. Please see his website for details.

Lee's first novel, London Dust (published in 2003) was nominated for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award. At fantasticfiction the novel is described as 'a powerful evocation of the underbelly of Victorian London, full of flavour, completely convincing and utterly gripping.'

Much the same can be said for The Diary of a Murder. It certainly hooked the VV, keeping her reading well into the night.

Lee Jackson's own summary is as follows -

Jacob Jones is a respectable clerk at the Crystal Palace Company, with a pretty young bride and a delightful new home in Islington. When his wife is murdered, everything points to his guilt, even a handwritten confession.

But the police discover Jacob Jones's diary, which tells a different story. They learn of a husband trying to bury his sordid past; a wife afflicted by a deep personal tragedy; an unlikely love affair that leads to a fatal conclusion.

Is Jones' diary a confession? An attempt to exonerate himself? A study in madness? Read the police investigation — read the diary itself — and uncover the truth.

The VV is restraining herself from giving a more thorough review - simply because to do so would detract from the mystery that Lee Jackson has woven so skilfully. She will say that Jacob is a complex character - a lowly paid clerk with literary aspirations, and a man who, despite his own pious pretensions, finds the restraints of married life to be increasingly irritating.

A house in Claremont Square, Islington - one of the settings in The Diary of a Murder
There is some wonderful scene setting. The author conveys the nation's shock at the sudden death of Prince Albert. We follow Jacob through bustling streets where shops sell all manner of Christmas gifts. When the family sit around to tell ghost stories, we hear Jacob scoff at the ridiculous notion of a story about a haunted train - a clever and knowing 'Dickensian' touch. We see the newly-built houses on the streets and squares of Islington, as well as a darker, claustrophobic world inhabited by the drunken and prostitutes.

But then, Lee Jackson knows a great deal about Victorian London having compiled his own vast compendium, The Victorian Dictionary. If you haven't already discovered this site, the VV strongly recommends a visit - and for those who prefer to read a hard copy, the dictionary is available in book form - and if that's not enough to whet your appetite, you can also follow Lee's blog which is, rather charmingly, called The Cat's Meat Shop.

And finally, if you do read the book, Lee Jackson welcomes any feedback. Again, you can contact him via his website - or you can leave a comment here.

P.S. This post has been linked to Nicola Morgan's blog which is one year old today. Congratulations to Nicola/ the Crabbit Old Bat who is generous, forthright and helpful in her posts about the world of writing and publication. If you are an aspiring author, whatever the genre or period you've chosen, the VV recommends Nicola's words of common sense advice. 

http://www.helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com/ .



One thing the VV really liked about Guy Ritchie's film 'Sherlock Holmes' was the use of the city of London as an historical backdrop. We see the splendour of the Houses of Parliament and the sprawling filthy shipyards and docks where the sense of dynamic industry is exciting, not to say awe-inspiring. But, perhaps most spectacular are the film's climactic scenes which are set on the half-built Tower Bridge, a marvel of engineering which groans and sways above the Thames like some skeletal, living leviathon.

The bridge was built of necessity, for the levels of traffic coming in and out of London, particularly from the East End, had been increasing dramatically and London Bridge was no longer able to cope with the demand.

An view of congestion on London Bridge

Tower Bridge was designed by the architect Horace Jones (see right), though he did not live to see his vision realised. It was John Wolfe Barry, a civil engineer, who oversaw the construction following his colleague's death.

The bridge was to be mediavel in appearance, with bascules raised by chains, just like a castle drawbridge. When lowered, carts and horses could cross. When raised, tall ships could sail beneath. The bridge was operated by hydraulics, with two pumping engines powered by steam. Below the steel-framed towers (which were clothed in stone to emulate the Tower of London) a tier had been sunk into the river bed, each one containing 70,000 tons of concrete. Amazingly - and those Victorian engineers really were amazing - the two sides could open and close in less than six minutes. And, all could be watched by pedestrians who crossed on suspended walkways above.

Tower Bridge was officially opened on June 30th 1894, when the Prince of Wales laid a foundation stone over a time capsule containing various papers and coins. The event was recorded by the artist, W. L. Wyllie and printed in the Graphic magazine.

The Opening of Tower Bridge by William Lionel Wyllie
 Image courtesy of The City of London.

The following year, the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy. A reviewer for the Art Journal wrote:

‘The day was glorious, the sun hot enough to raise a tremulous golden haze over river and land, the breeze brisk enough to keep colour sparkling and the landscape clear. Mr Wyllie found here all that his heart could desire – the close-packed flotilla of shipping, the race of the mighty river tide, the avenue of unpaintably brilliant and varied flaunting bunting, which led up to the mighty bridge standing white midstream in the westering sunlight, and the great fleet of craft of all sizes and rigs, headed by the Admiralty yacht Irene, passing under its vast uplifted arms. Here was a subject for an historical painter, and in that sense he has conceived and executed it.’

More recently, the bridge is underwent vital restoration work. The architectural colour specialist, Patrick Baty of Papers and Paints carried out detailed research so that the structure can be repainted and maintained  in the most fitting manner.

Patrick Baty sourcing paint for analysis

Should you wish to see more of Patrick in action, you can watch this clip shown on London Tonight.  Alternatively, you can read more of the process involved on the Tower Bridge information site.

And, finally, if you want to visit Tower Bridge you can learn more at this site: The Tower Bridge Exhibition.