My dearest Theo
It has been several weeks now; how are you settled into your lodgings? I have been in correspondence with the van Stockum-Haanebeeks. They pass on their kind regards. It makes me glad to know they are thinking of me, but you are my preferred confidante. I have much to relate.
Dark nights have come to London. Away from the lamplight, there is danger in the corners of the city. But, though a new train track is laid here every day, still it suits me to walk wherever I wish to go, to be my own movement.
London rewards time and attention. The globes of gaslight of an evening make me feel I’m walking among the heavens. To look into the water from Westminster Bridge is to see the weeds as a widow’s shawl, lank and drawn downstream to the distant darkness. So far from the coast, the tidal Thames heaves its great mass inland or disappears out to sea to leave little but a stream in a bog of mud. I see many broken things on the water’s edge: fractured clay pipes, smashed crockery, discarded bones. The mudlarks make good work on the beaches when the river is gone.
But London fog is not like Helvoirt fog. The heavy soot of the myriad manufactories falls upon the city’s back. It makes my spit dark and thick. The mist shrouds the streetlight, leans in to tell its secrets. These are the streets of Dickens, of the lost children of civilisation, finding places to live in the shadows of ramshackle buildings that seem too derelict to inhabit. It frightens me, and, I confess, at times it excites me, too. Dickens’ old house is not far from Southampton Street, and I walk there at midday as I take my repast. I had the temerity to sketch his house on Doughty Street, but hated my work and threw it away. It was junk.
You know how I adore the work of Bunyan: his depiction of paradise is a Gothic window through which we can understand our fate. Theo, I found where the great man is interred. I walk there after work to the Bunhill Fields in Shoreditch, and sit beside his grave, where his effigy seeks to reassure me. So close to his mortal remains, I attain a rare calmness in my soul, albeit fleetingly. Blake, too, lays within a neighbouring plot, sleeping the great sleep. Defoe and his wife are nearby, consoling. It is hard to imagine being held in such reverence after your passing, though to present humanity with such deep beauty is tantamount to making real the Word of God. It amazes me to think they were once human, and walked these streets as I do.
Yesterday, an unusual incident occurred. A young woman brought to the office a hand drawing in the hope that Goupil & Cie might buy it. It was a sketch of my likeness, drawn through the sliding sash window that overlooks the street: her on the causeway, me at my desk. It was crude but affecting.
She had many drawings in a portfolio. I asked her, why draw, why not paint? She turned out her pockets and showed me the nothing there. Her clothing was of the east end tenement, her skin pallid and drawn. I gave her a few shillings for oils and canvas but she would spend it on food for her family, she said. She told me the poor are divorced from art because art costs money. They have little enough food; art is a luxury they cannot afford. We are wealthy, you and I, rich enough to pursue our fancies.
I asked where she preferred to draw, and she said Upper Norwood, where the light plays havoc with the workings of her heart.
I asked her to return to the office later in order to present her drawings to Mr Obach, but she never did. I placed the picture of my likeness in my billfold in my jacket and walked it home to my lodgings, where I tucked it into the frame of the mirror. Mrs Loyer said I was a fool to give her my money but I like the picture, Theo. I like to glance at it, from the mirror to the drawing and back, over and over, toying with the angles and the light.
This morning, as the dawn took the day, I crossed the street with a graphite pencil and sketched my boarding-house with the light at my back. My German friends complimented my efforts in the same kind way that you encourage me. I gave the drawing to Mrs Loyer’s daughter, Eugenie, who propped it behind the carriage clock on the drawing room mantleshelf. I can barely bring myself to look at it, fearing that I failed.
We used to draw, you and I, as children, do you recall? I wonder if Mother still has them filed away somewhere? They will be worthless now, I’m sure: she probably burnt them for kindling, in which case I’m glad they found good use. Remember how Father offered us coins for our artwork, and you took it and banked it, and used the money to buy berenklauw, but I refused, exclaiming that my drawing wasn’t yet finished. I suspect I would be a poor salesman of my own work. I would want to retain it to continue to work on it, or would give it away, bewildered that someone would want to own it.
I exhorted my German friends to walk with me to the Crystal Palace at Upper Norwood, this afternoon, to remind me of the dazzling light. We watched our first cricket match en route, which was amusing, if a little baffling. I said to a local, ‘My English is not good, how do you describe these positions they stand in?’ But they said my English was fine, not even the English understand their confection. The English love their sports. It is one of the things I love about them.
The Palace itself is astounding. We saw ourselves reflected in the glass, our vision distorted by imperfections in the vast panes. The engineering feats alone left me breathless. And to look to the East, as if looking toward Holland, was to see the connection between all things, including you, Theo. In such places, God appears in nature, humbling me.
As we walked home, with the lamplight left behind, a petty lurcher grabbed my jacket, intent on snatching my billfold. I fought him off with the patterns you taught me in The Hague, that excursion on the beach by the guest house. I lost my top hat as we fought. I held him by his grubby collar, interrogated him, discovered from his explanation that he needed money. I gave him two shillings and sent him on his way. I forgave him. He was poor and needed the money more than I. He called me a name I did not catch, something to do with my foreign status, but we shook hands and I begged him not to take such drastic action again. He promised he would try. The Church should look after these waifs, then they would not need to steal. The Church or the State, either one.
But that was not the first time I’d visited Upper Norwood, nor the first time the place had tested my mettle. I had been there on my own, Theo, this Spring, not long after I arrived in London. And I wept at what I saw. I wept. It was beautiful, it’s true, to get above the fog and breath the clean air, but there was something else. Indeed, I must tell you why I am writing, my Brother, for this has been long in the telling.
From Upper Norwood, I looked north to Muswell Hill to see the new palace named for Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Two weeks it had stood, open to the public, and I planned a trip there the following weekend, early-June, walking through Hampstead Heath, through Highgate, through Crouch End, closing in on its magnificence.
But disaster. Fire ran through the body of the building as I watched from afar as if I were there. The flames through the great windows were the tulips of our childhood, cupped in a vivid, scalding scarlet on the stems of the colossal lead downpipes. I was repelled and pulled forth, transfixed as the flames became tongues of demons in a tumultuous sky scarred by hellish light. The soot, climbing and crawling and creeping across the landscape like a flock of crows, was a harbinger of something I dare not comprehend.
I have thoughts such as those, Theo, that unsettle the darkest reaches of my nervous mind. The event left me changed. Did you ever sit on a chair and understand that, beneath the wild starry sky, you, of all people, were sitting upon this chair of all chairs? I found myself on such a chair tonight, a hazelwood dining chair, imagining the chair as it was, with me upon it. Then I sat upon the bed, looking at the chair without me, the chair as a chair-in-waiting, not a chair until it bore my weight but always with the potential to be a chair. I moved from chair to bed to chair to bed until Mrs Loyer begged me to stay my boots upon the bare oaken boards, so late at night in the fevered darkness. So I watched the chair under the failing circle of candlelight, wondering what is a chair, what am I. I was unable to answer, not even with the woman’s insinuating sketch, trapped in the frame of the mirror, keeping its vigil over me.
Theo, please excuse my poor handwriting tonight. I have been concerned for my thoughts of late, and I write swiftly, startling myself. My hand seems to know what my brain fears to think. I do not want to burden you but my angst gets the better of me when I think of your unfading forgiveness. Outside, I present myself with requisite decorum but within, in private, the crows have not left me. They move toward me, destined for my soul.
I may not post this letter. I may throw it on the fire. Perhaps, in that way, I can rid myself of this deepening darkness plagues me all the while.
We shall see.
Your loving brother.