Van Gogh’s doppelganger was a Scot who brought the artist’s work to Glasgow
There was no mistaking the likeness. Put Vincent Van Gogh and Alexander Reid in a police line-up and you’d have had the devil of a trouble to tell them apart. Both were red-headed with spiky beards and a penetrating, green-eyed stare. Their complexions – pale-faced and freckled – were similar and their hair was receding. In a portrait Van Gogh did of Reid, the Glasgow art dealer was given the artist’s small mouth. He may not look as wild and suspicious and frantic as Van Gogh often did but there is something furtive and pursed about him none the less. He is dressed for business, in collar and tie. It is a sympathetic portrayal, done shortly after Van Gogh made Reid’s acquaintance in Paris, probably, according to Frances Fowle, in the summer of 1887, three years before Van Gogh’s death.
Van Gogh gave the painting to Reid as a token of a friendship which did not endure. Later Reid returned with it and another portrait Van Gogh did of him to Glasgow where he was employed as an art dealer in his father’s company. Reid pere was not amused. ‘Reid,’ wrote the artist Archibald Standish Hartrick, who knew well both the Scottish and French art scenes, ‘got into serious trouble with his father for acquiring or investing in some of Van Gogh’s work, but I cannot believe he gave much money for them or I should have heard about it from the painter! It was the contact with such atrocities, as they seemed, that raised the ire of the parent; for, in the view of the elder picture-dealer, Reid was destroying his taste for what was saleable.’
What was saleable in Glasgow in the late 19th century were old masters. In the second city of the empire with its burgeoning class of nouveau riche merchants and manufacturers there were plenty of men with deep pockets eager to decorate the walls of their palatial villas in the manner of aristocrats. It was, as Fowle points out, an ideal city in which to be an art dealer. Glasgow was booming as never before or since. As the century progressed grand houses were built to reflect the status of their owners and were furnished and decorated accordingly. Taste, subsequently, became more adventurous. The old masters gave way to the Impressionists, the Glasgow Boys and the Scottish Colourists which were collected by industrialists who depended on a network of dealers to seek out and purchase paintings for them. Thus, through a combination of commerce and culture, Glasgow became one of the international art centres to the enduring benefit of Scotland’s municipal and national collections.
Alexander Reid was undoubtedly one of the main dealers of his era. Born in 1854, he apparently inherited his love of art from his maternal grandfather, William Turnbull, a minor artist who worked as a designer in a pottery. Reid’s father, James, was the co-owner of a firm of carvers and gilders, which specialised in supplying the shipping trade. Leaving school at seventeen Reid joined the firm which soon thereafter began selling prints. As the business expanded it diversified into ‘pictures, china, bronzes, weapons and antiques’. Pictures, however, were Reid’s forte and he was given a room in which to display them. Among the artists he favoured were several of the Glasgow Boys, including James Paterson, James Guthrie, Joseph Crawhall, John Lavery, George Henry and E. A. Walton, through whom he got to hear about what was happening in France. However, opportunities in Glasgow were then few to view paintings by French artists. Spurred on by the competition of local dealers such as Craibe Angus, Reid took himself off to Paris to witness at first hand the artistic revolution.
The year was 1886. His aim, at least at first, was to study art. His talent, however, was by all accounts negligible. The sole example of his work that Fowle offers is a pastel, Lundin Links, which is competent if hardly jaw-dropping. His true forte lay in dealing in art. He was offered employment in the modern painting section of Boussod & Valadon, working alongside Theo Van Gogh, Vincent’s younger brother. Eager to find somewhere affordable to live, Reid moved in with Theo who, it seems, was near his wits’ end with his temperamental brother. Few letters, alas, are extant from Vincent to Theo, his main correspondent, at this period, for the very good reason that they were living together. Throughout 1886 he stayed with Theo, during which time he encountered the works of Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists and met, among others, Paul Gauguin, Camille Pisarro, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Signac. Theo, like his brother, was inspired by what these artists were doing and began to exhibit their paintings.
Fowle reckons that Vincent, Theo and Reid shared lodgings for about six months. In the beginning, it would appear, Vin-cent viewed Reid if not as a soulmate then as someone whom he found simpatico and with whom he could talk freely about art. Both men, for instance, were admirers of the French painter Monticelli, in whose tradition Vincent once said he was following. On occasion Reid would accompany the elder Van Gogh on painting trips, heading at weekends into the countryside around Paris. Once, relates Fowle, ‘they had set off for Ville-d’Avray, following in the footsteps of Camille Corot, when Van Gogh spotted a basket of apples in the rue Rodier and “refused to budge”. Since he was short of change, Reid lent him the money to buy the apples. Unwilling to waste any time, Vincent abandoned the expedition and returned home immediately to set to work. When Reid arrived back at the end of the day, Vincent presented him with the
‘ Van Gogh seems to have believed Reid was guilty
of sharp practice. He was also disturbed that Reid
was increasingly becoming commercially minded.’
It was during this period that Van Gogh painted his two portraits of Reid. In retrospect, they marked the high water mark of their friendship for after the spring of 1887 things between them were never the same again. In the few years that followed Van Gogh made occasional references to Reid in letters to Theo. Often these were barbed while in others he sounded a note of regret. In the first of them, written on 24 February, 1888, Van Gogh writes that it would be ‘relatively unfair’ to say that they had never benefited from knowing Reid. Moreover, he had given them a Vase of Flowers by Monticelli, whose value he had helped raise. Given that Van Gogh and his brother owned five Monticellis this was significant. Reid, adds Van Gogh, ‘was good and pleasant company in the first months’. What appears to have happened in the interim is an argument over plans to sell work by the Impressionists in Britain. Van Gogh seems to have believed that Reid was guilty of sharp practice. He was also, it would appear, disturbed that Reid was increasingly becoming more commercially minded, possibly because of pressure from his father. Just over a year before he died Van Gogh wrote to his brother, saying: ‘How I think of Reid as I read Shake-speare, and how I’ve thought of him several times when I was iller than at present. Finding that I’d been infinitely too harsh and perhaps discouraging towards him in claiming that it was better to love painters than paintings. It isn’t up to me to make distinctions like that, not even when faced with the problem that we see our living friends suffering so much from the lack of money to feed themselves and pay for their colours, and on the other hand the high prices that are paid for the canvases of dead painters.’
Reid’s connection to and relationship with Van Gogh, however, takes up just the first two chapters of Fowle’s book. The rest is devoted to his dealership in Glasgow where he continued to champion the Impressionists and became increasingly associated with the Glasgow Boys. In his gallery in West George Street customers could browse among paintings and sculptures which have subsequently become part of the canon. Among the talents he spotted before they became famous and highly collectable were Rodin and Whistler, Hornel and Crawhall, who among the Glasgow Boys was the one he most admired. Not only did he supply local, wealthy collectors, such as William Burrell, Leonard Gow and William McInnes, he was also influential in America, where he helped cement the reputations of Degas, Monet, Cezanne and others less celebrated.
Reid died in 1928, signalling, in Fowle’s unimaginative words, ‘the end of an era’. But the sentiment is not misplaced. Reid, as his champion acknowledges, was unusually perspicacious but he was also, as Van Gogh suspected, shrewd and pragmatic, stocking what would sell rather than what he thought clients ought to buy. He was never, concludes Fowle, committed to the avant-garde. Nor, it seems, was he wholly enamoured of Van Gogh’s work, admitting that it was not until 1921, when the Dutchman’s genius was widely accepted, that his gallery stocked it. Frances Fowle’s book is as overdue as it is welcome. But as one read, it was hard to dismiss from one’s mind what Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote about a man who claimed to be a friend of Kafka: ‘Immortality is not choosy. Anyone who happens to come in contact with a great man marches with him into immortality, often in clumsy boots.’
VAN GOGH’S TWIN: THE SCOTTISH ART DEALER ALEXANDER REID
NATIONAL GALLERIES OF SCOTLAND, £19.95 176PP