I live in France and when family visited, I’d often go to Arles, where Van Gogh lived when he cut off his ear. Little details of that story used to annoy me. There was an eye-witness account that Vincent had only cut off the lobe of the ear, and yet there still seemed to be a general idea that it was the whole ear.
Moving forward, one of my sisters died. That was a wake-up call. I started to think, ‘what did I used to want to do when I was younger?’ and I had wanted to be a researcher for film documentaries. I started to read up on Vincent – at this point, I just had a curiosity about why this story had become such a myth.
I started my research by quietly beavering away, asking myself silly questions, logical questions.
I thought to myself, if I was a policeman, I would know all of the people in the town and I would know what the town looked like. The only problem was that those people were dead and the town, including Vincent’s house, had been heavily bombed in World War II.
There was a lot of groundwork that made the difference. I worked on recreating the city with old photographs and stumbled upon some aerial shots of Arles from 1919, which showed me his house and the area.
In trying to understand what kind of people lived in this town, I built up a database, which now has 25, 000 people on it. This enabled me to work out the name of the girl to whom he gave his ear and the cleaning lady who spread the word that Vincent was having another breakdown.
It’s like doing a massive crossword. The pieces fall into place very slowly. When I got bored, I’d do another part of the story.
As it was, I found the thing that answered my first question, ‘what did he do to himself?’ I’ll keep the answer to that question under wraps for now – anyone who wants to know more can read my book, or wait till the talk in November. What I will say is that I did make a big discovery and it did change art history.
It was so exciting. I searched for so long for that tiny piece of paper and when I found it, I knew it was going to change my life. Especially at this time of my life when you don’t really expect anything new to happen. I was just a bit bored. If my sister hadn’t died at the same time as me getting ill, maybe I wouldn’t have had the courage.
I tried to play the devil’s advocate all the way through and ask, ‘well is that true or am I assuming that?’ It’s such an odd story. To chop off your ear, walk through the street and hand the package to a young girl. I mean, she fainted. I’m not surprised!
I’m now working on a book on the people he painted in Arles. What I have always found interesting about his portraits is that they’re people just out of ordinary life. The events that were happening around them were touching on these people’s lives. For instance, Madame Ginoux from his portrait series L’Arlésienne was the first girl in her family to read and write. Her life was changing, the lives of women were changing.
At our event in November, I want to create something really fun and entertaining for U3A members. I like to laugh. I think it’s important to throw in little jokes. People do laugh at my talks – not all the time, rolling around in the aisles – but it should be entertaining! I’m up for a lark.