Welcome to Van Gogh House, London
An interview with Livia Wang, Creative Director at Van Gogh House, London
The ASMN caught up with one of the newest members to join the network earlier this year: The Van Gogh House London. We spoke to Creative Director Livia Wang to discuss how they navigated the pandemic as a new studio space, the challenges, and surprises of their extensive renovation project, and what it means to be part of this unique network.
Stacey Clapperton: When Van Gogh House London opened in 2019, the world was a very different place. How has the last year been, as a new museum space, navigating all the ups and downs?
Livia Wang: We had been open for a few months before the pandemic and had just got going with two exhibitions and a public programme and then we were shut. I think the biggest challenge was to get the emergency funding because we didn't have the track record to show for it. What was really great actually was having the time to look at our organisation plan. We made proper use of that time thinking about programming a bit more, funding, and our organisational structure, so that was what we mainly worked on - it was really productive.
SC: You have spoken previously about how the lead up to 2019 was focussed on restoring the building itself. Could you give us an insight into what the building was like when you arrived?
LW: When we first got to the building, the previous residents were a family who had moved in in the 1950s or maybe a bit earlier. They ended up living in it for about 60 years and by the time they left, that is when the whole Van Gogh story was discovered and the house sort of froze in time. When the house came into our hands, in 2012, the house was still in the 1970s, all of the décor, all of the colours used, all of the electrics, plumbing, everything! It was in really poor condition. There was a real process of lifting up these layers and letting the house breathe. From a technical perspective that was quite the biggest challenge in terms of construction and the building was just allowing air to pass through so that the house could dry out.
“There was a real process of lifting up these layers and letting the house breathe.”
SC: And what were the main challenges with the restoration work?
LW: My background is in architecture, so I was obsessed and loved this part. It took a long time to get planning permission, around seven to eight years, so we worked and spent a lot of time thinking about the project and the design work but also a lot of research from an academic point of view.
When it came to the actual building work, we worked with some brilliant contractors who were really into teaching as well so that kind of sharing of knowledge and educational approach was something that stuck throughout the whole project. Everyone was always teaching one another new skills, or enquiring about this and how to tackle things through a more academic approach.
SC: Did the restoration throw up any unwelcome or welcome surprises?
LW: Because we were working with such amazing contractors, they kept a really beady eye out for anything that we might find. In terms of surprises the most delightful things we found were some house insurance documents belonging to Van Gogh's landlady and he writes a lot about her in his letters home. It was really great to find these documents directly linked to something he writes about, and they are all dated to the time he was in the house, so she signs and dates everything 1872–1876 and he was there in 1874.
Then, personally, my favourite thing was where all these children's toys were found under one of the floorboards, in the Van Gogh's former bedroom. We found marbles, toy dolls, toy guns, little handwriting samples, and punishment lines copied out by this little boy. He had signed and dated everything from the 1850s and 1860s, all before Van Gogh's time in the house. I like the idea that Van Gogh could have lifted the floorboards in his bedroom and done a whole project on the previous residents of the house.
“I like the idea that Van Gogh could have lifted the floorboards in his bedroom and done a whole project on the previous residents of the house.”
SC: It's really interesting the way you talk about, not wanting the house to be a time capsule of Van Gogh's year living there but celebrating the house's legacy and it being a dwelling rather than a museum. That's quite a unique approach compared to other studio museums in the network. What layers of the house's history have you kept?
LW: So, when we talk about the house and when we renovated it, we really wanted to speak of this little boy James Wigmore, as well as Van Gogh, as well as the people who came after him as well, the Smith family and post war adaptations and repairs made to the building. The house itself is the main object in the collection. From our perspective we were adding more layers in a critical way which is why we invite artists to live in the house and they can sleep in the rooms and use the kitchen and there's a sense of not being too precious. We want the house to be used.
SC: How have artists used the space?
LW: We have commissioned small interventions, including people repairing spindles in the staircase but inserting beautiful carvings into them. I have been working with an artist over the past 6 months, Jo Volley, who does a lot of work with pigments and she puts it directly onto our walls here as well and I think in a way there is a virtue of the fact that Van Gogh did not actually paint anything here and there is a letter that he writes from the house saying “I am so glad I finally have a room without a sloping ceiling and without blue wallpaper with a green border”, which is exactly what his room isn't.
“We invite artists to live in the house and they can sleep in the rooms and use the kitchen [...] We want the house to be used.”
SC: It's a really refreshing take on thinking about authenticity and what it means to create an authentic visitor experience. How you convert a room, a space, or a whole house back to its authentic self can be interpreted in so many ways.
LW: I think everyone who visits goes away with a bit of the sense that they have been let in on a secret and can be critical around what is authentic or what isn't. Maybe it doesn't have to be a capsule, or they are sort of let in on the argument as well. One thing that is quite interesting is that when Van Gogh was here, he was not actually painting at that time, he was writing, musing a lot, doing some drawing, but of it relating to his everyday life at that point. He was 20, and it was literally his first time away from home so the story we tell is a social history of the area. How it was when he was there and how it has changed a lot. We know how he walked to work, plants that he sees, what he is growing, everyday kind of life and thoughts - what he is writing, what he is reading. It is quite like the building is not over-shadowed by what work he is doing. So, in a way we are quite lucky in that respect.
SC: And how have you found talking to the neighbours today, has there been a positive reception? Is there a creative community? A sense of pride even that this house is on their street or in the area?
LW: Definitely there is a plaque outside and that is like a monument without anyone doing anything with it. We have a lady nearby who before the house was renovated, was already pedestrianizing the area now known as Van Gogh Walk. That is now maintained by local community members and there is a really beautiful garden in a street where cars used to drive down. Our school opposite renamed itself Van Gogh Primary School a few years ago. So many people know about the house, so many who live locally and people from quite far away who knew that Van Gogh lived in Brixton come on a pilgrimage. I think because Van Gogh is so famous, literally anyone you stop in the street if you asked them to talk about painting, they would probably freak out but if you asked them about Van Gogh everyone knows who he is.
SC: You say you haven't got the largest collection, but you certainly have a wealth of material whether it is the building or the stories you can tell. What has Van Gogh House got planned for the year ahead?
LW: We have our next two Artists in Residence who are moving in and that is being sponsored by a company called Minerva. It's a writer and a visual artist and they will both be living in the house together for an entire month and they will be producing a publication at the end of that. And then in September we have our long-awaited commission and that is Brian Griffiths and Frank Kent's exhibition of large format photographs which are so ethereal and the subject of all of these are really beautiful objects that resonate with some story related to the building or Van Gogh.
“I think everyone who visits goes away with a bit of the sense that they have been let in on a secret and can be critical around what is authentic or what isn't."
SC: That sounds incredible, when can people come and visit?
LW: At the moment we do tours every month on a Saturday and Sunday and one of those is a walking tour from Covent Garden to the House. Then from September it is going to be Wednesday to Sunday 12-6pm. This will be the most open that we have ever been!
SC: Being part of the network, which other studio-museums are you most looking forward to visiting?
For ages I have really wanted to visit the Francis Bacon Studio. It's been great learning about Charleston and then Farleys House as well, they were spaces where art was happening in a domestic setting and the building allowed for a radical or different way of life and so I think this house we want it to be in its sort of original conception if that makes sense. Inviting students in, lending books, lectures things like that, so as to see the house as a living place a building being added to and a story.
“It is just great to be part of this network, understanding that there are so many places that have had similar challenges.”
SC: And finally, what does it mean to you and to Van Gogh House London be part of the ASMN?
LW: It is just great to be part of this network, understanding that there are so many places that have had similar challenges, but also just to get an insight into how other people run their businesses as well. Often that kind of stuff is not transparent when you are looking at something from the outside, so it is really helpful to be part of the network. Especially, when you are part of such a small team, but you are also part of a larger network.
SC: That's wonderful to hear that the network has been beneficial for you already. It's great that we all have those shared experiences and can talk to one another. Chances are someone in the network will be trying to navigate the same challenges and being able to share our knowledge is what the network is all about.