Vincent Van Gogh's reasons for shooting himself in a lonely French field in 1890 have been endlessly debated, but a bitter sense of professional frustration must have played a part. Despite the efforts of his devoted brother Theo, a discerning art dealer, the painter sold just one work during his lifetime. It was only after his death at the age of 37 that prices for his pictures began to soar towards their current heights.
As is made clear in a fascinating show at Compton Verney, a country-house gallery in Warwickshire, British collectors were quick to start acquiring Van Gogh's art. Sometimes, though, they were thwarted by the philistinism around them. Alexander Reid, a young Glaswegian dealer who shared an apartment with the Van Gogh brothers in Paris, was delighted when the artist gave him two canvases: a portrait of Reid himself and a luminous still life of apples glowing in a simple basket. After he returned with these prizes to Scotland, his scornful father promptly sold them for £5 each.
William Robinson, the British consul in Amsterdam, was scarcely more fortunate. In 1893, long before Van Gogh became an avant-garde legend, Robinson purchased a powerful painting of two crabs. Executed soon after Vincent had slashed his ear and presented the gruesome sacrificial offering to a local prostitute, it is a surprisingly assured image. But the longer we scrutinise the uppermost crab, which stares out at us with claws ominously flexed, the more unnerving it becomes. Pitched against a ground of vehement green, both crabs seem intent on devouring the viewer.
So Robinson showed an astonishing amount of verve when he purchased the canvas, for £17, from Theo Van Gogh's widow, Jo. His enthusiasm was not shared by other buyers 13 years later. When he sold Two Crabs (1889) at an Amsterdam auction in 1906, it fetched a paltry £8. The price seems even more risible when we consider how swiftly Van Gogh's reputation grew in the early years of the 20th century. In 1910 Roger Fry, the most influential critic in Britain, placed him alongside Cézanne and Gauguin in a show celebrating them as the triumvirate of post-impressionist masters. Fry's landmark exhibition at London's Graf-ton Galleries became infamous as the "Art-Quake", the Saatchi "Sensation" of its day. Younger visitors were won over by the show's daring vision of the new possibilities for painting, while the older generation flocked to voice their outrage at the inflammatory images.
From then on, Van Gogh's reputation was secure. In the same year Frank Stoop, a Dutch-born London stockbroker, bought Farms near Auvers (1890) for a healthy £400 in Berlin, followed by further canvases and works on paper. When he died in 1933, Stoop bequeathed them all to the Tate, along with his paintings by Cézanne, Modigliani and Matisse.
Even greater generosity was displayed by Gwendoline Davies. She and her younger sister Margaret inherited an immense fortune from their industrialist grandfather, one of the wealthiest men in Wales. Unmarried, teetotal and strict Cal- vinistic Methodists, these redoubtable women indulged themselves only when confronted by art. In 1920, Gwendoline spent £2,000 on Van Gogh's Rain - Auvers (1890). Painted just weeks before he shot himself, it is by far the toughest image on show at Compton Verney. While crows hover menacingly over the field leading to the cemetery, rain lances in diagonal spears and pierces the terrain. It is among the most raw, anguished canvases Van Gogh ever produced, openly exposing the desperation that led to his suicide.
Less bleak works were also on the market. Samuel Courtauld secured an outstanding prize when he bought A Wheatfield with Cypresses (1889) in 1923. The price was £3,300, accurately reflecting the exceptional quality of this large, boisterous image. Although Van Gogh painted it while immured in the St-Rémy asylum, it gives vent to his excited involvement with the heat and energy of the Provençal countryside. Cypress trees may be traditional symbols of death, but here they twist up from the earth with restless dynamism. Caught up in the same convulsive rhythms as the clouds, they embody the elemental pulse of the natural world.
The wheatfield is ready for harvesting, and the entire picture was surely intended as a paean to life rather than imminent extinction. Courtauld bought the landscape for the Tate, so it became the first Van Gogh painting to enter a public collection in Britain. At Compton Verney, freed from its familiar place in the National Gallery, it can be savoured in all its bracing freshness as if for the very first time.
Despite the tragedies of Van Gogh's life, not all his work is depressing. Confron-ted by a painting as ecstatic as Oleanders, we quickly realise how affirmative his art can be. The painter responded with eruptive emotions to the "raving mad" oleanders in the public garden at Arles. He told Theo that "the blasted things are flowering so riotously they may well catch locomotor ataxia [a form of syphilis]. They are loaded with fresh flowers as well, and their green is con- tinuously renewing itself in fresh, strong shoots, apparently inexhaustibly."
These comments certainly apply to the puce flowers springing out of a majolica jug in Oleanders. Jostling with spiky leaves, some of the flowers swoop down on a yellow-covered copy of Émile Zola's La Joie de vivre. The book's title, unexpectedly at odds with the gloom of more famous Zola novels, sums up the work's effervescent mood. No wonder it captivated Michael Sadler, the vice-chancellor of Leeds University and an avid early collector of Gauguin, Kandinsky, Klee and Marc, who bought it in 1923. Five years later, Oleanders was offered to the Tate. But as so often in the grim history of the Millbank mausoleum, its director declined the opportunity to buy, and the painting is now among the most cherished treasures in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Yet we have good reason to applaud the fate of the intensely sympathetic Head of a Peasant Woman, which was painted in 1885 in the Brabant village where Van Gogh's parents lived. It was purchased for a modest £300 by the socialite Evelyn Fleming, the widow of a Scottish banker who bequeathed her his fortune - on the condition that she never remarried. Now remembered as the mother of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, she kept the canvas for more than 25 years. It was then bought for £4,000 by the Edinburgh advocate Alexander Maitland, who gave it to the National Gallery of Scotland in 1960.
So this quiet but intense painting testi-fies not only to Van Gogh's power as a portraitist, but also to the acumen and generosity of a great British collector. Maitland understood the true stature of an artist movingly described by the Scots Pictorial in 1913 as "a burning spirit to whom art was more than life".
"Van Gogh and Britain: pioneer collectors" is at Compton Verney, Warwickshire (01926 645 500) until 18 June