a. a. 

a. Model of the vicarage, graveyard and church, and where they were located. The grey area in the left-hand corner shows where the town hall now stands. The model itself is on display in the Van Gogh church in Etten-Leur.

b. The graveyard, the hedge, the church. Sounds like a book I once read. 

c. The courtyard garden. On the right, you can just about make out the sunflower stalks.

d. One of Van Gogh’s drawings of the vicarage. Vicarage and Church at Etten, April 1876, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation). View in detail here.

e. The statue, by Hein Vree. 

f. Bench by Pien Storm van Leeuwen. Also featuring sad poppies and daisies. 


1. Stichting Vincent van Gogh Etten-Leur, De Ettense Mijl, Vincent van Gogh, Stadswandeling Etten-Leur.

2. Jean Sprackland, These Silent Mansions, A life in graveyards, London: Jonathan Cape, 2020, p. 59. 

3. J.A. Rozemeyer, Van Gogh in Etten, Stichting Vincent van Gogh Etten-Leur, 1990, p. 19.  
003. ETTEN-LEUR | NETHERLANDS | 16/9/20 

The graveyard and the vicarage

The vicarage where Van Gogh’s father Theodorus, his mother Anna and some of his younger siblings lived from 1875 until 1882, no longer exists. It was built in 1650, just west of the church where Theodorus preached. In between the two, the church and the vicarage, was a graveyard.a 

The graveyard’s still there, I see as I walk round the church towards the spot indicated on the map I carry. It’s been here since the thirteenth century, it says, and in its original state was much bigger than it is now.1 Enclosed by a slim green hedge, it looks like a fragile kind of relic of some forgotten time against the fittingly anachronistic backdrop of the town hall: modern red brick, massive in comparison.  

There are names on the headstones, naturally. Some are legible from a distance, others are faded. I don’t dare come closer to try and decipher them: there are just two paths here, and the graves themselves are close together. But some of the names I can read ring familiar, names like Van Eekelen,  which I must have read somewhere in a biography. The dates suggest some of them must have been Van Gogh’s contemporaries. 

Jean Sprackland recently published a book about graveyards and the histories and stories they contain. ‘Retrieve,’ she writes, ‘from the Old French retrover, to find again. To go back and recover what has been lost (...) As if the past were a drawer that could be wrenched open, creaking and jamming, and its contents rummaged for valuables. If only we remember hard enough, perhaps we can get back the thing, the place, the person we left behind.’2  

Leave the graveyard through the gate, turn right, and there’s a narrow strip of grass, a bench, a statue. My map calls this a courtyard garden, but its forlorn, trampled-on look brings Sprackland’s book back to my mind, both the futility and the possibilities that any effort to revive the past entails. This is where the vicarage was. Two drawings Van Gogh made before he’d decided to become an artist show what it looked like. The little annex on the right served as his studio during the months he spent here in 1881.d He learned his trade here, drawing, not yet painting, copied pictures from exercise books, prints, went out and drew the land, and most of all the people making their living from it. 

Today, on the spot where his studio was, there stands a statue of the very man, complete with hat and backpack. The hat reminds me a little of the helmets soldiers wore in the trenches of the first world war. The ground around the statue is bare, tufts of grass here and there, mangled poppies, daisies, something that looks like coneflowers drooping towards the pavement. And perhaps most pertinent of all, several cut-0ff stalks that I suspect must once have borne the heads of large sunflowers. 

It’s scanty, what’s left of him here, and then again traces are everywhere, really. Depends on what you’re looking for. 

A final titbit, but one of my favourites: when they demolished the vicarage back in 1905, it turned out that its bad summertime smells had been caused by the bodies - skeletons, by then - lying buried barely half a metre below its floors. The vicarage had been built right on top of an old part of the graveyard, but no one had had thought to clear the graves.3   

The novelist in me absolutely adores the metaphor - but let’s resist, and refrain from the kind of sensationalism that could turn these short stories into little tawdry bits.

Comments? Questions? Do drop me a line: 
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© Viola van de Sandt, 2021.