In a Kennington pub, a portrait which will amaze the art world. HUGO ANDREWS reports
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In her catalogue essay for Van Gogh in England, an exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery in 1992, Debora Silverman describes a sojourn which was, certainly by Van Gogh's standards, wonderfully happy. He was 21 years old and had come to work at Goupil's, a West End gallery in which his family had an interest. He was paid £90 per annum, which made him comfortably off, and he appeared to have liked London very much.

He had arrived with high hopes and he was not disappointed. "I am looking forward very much to seeing London as you can imagine,'' he told his brother, Theo. "It will be splendid for my English." Once he arrived, he wrote letters filled with enthusiasm for the city. He liked the open spaces and the museums, and he soon moved into lodgings in Kennington which pleased him. "I now have a room such as I have always longed for," he told Theo.

His sister-in-law later claimed that his first year in London was the happiest year of his life. It is well known and generally accepted that, during this time, he fell in love with Eugenie Loyer, his landlady's daughter.

But ten days ago, a workman in an Irish pub in south London made a discovery which not only reveals something hitherto unknown about that summer of 1874, it also opens up a whole new area of Van Gogh scholarship. As he was clearing the loft of the Hanover Arms, Kennington Park Road - they were about to put on a new roof - Michael Watts found a roll of old papers stuffed behind a beam. Most of them were posters from local theatres, but on the very inside was a pastel drawing of a bearded man in a striped cap. He brushed the dust off it and found the signature "Vincent".

Watts secreted the drawing in his overall and took it to a friend who dealt in pub signs, who in turn referred him to an art dealer friend of his.

Could it possibly be by Van Gogh? The proposition seemed ridiculous. The dealer took the drawing to his friend Andrew Bailey, a lifelong student of Van Gogh, who has written extensively about the artist's time in London.

To his amazement, Bailey, after close scrutiny, identified it as genuine. "I have seen dozens of purported Van Goghs, some more ridiculous than others. And to my knowledge nobody has ever come to me before with anything unknown but genuine. But when I saw this pastel I felt a shock of recognition. The drawing technique immediately seemed right to me. I had tests run on the pastels and the paper. Both satisfactorily placed it in the right period."

But Bailey's authentication raised many more questions than it answered. Van Gogh did produce art during his stay in England; there is a drawing of the Loyers' house in Hackford Road dating from spring 1874, and houses at Ramsgate and Isleworth from his return visit in 1876, but that was long before he started to use colour. Certainly the style and nature of this bearded man long postdated that. That meant either that this was an earlier pastel than anybody had ever seen, or that he had done it long after he left England.

In any case, who was the bearded man, and what was he holding? Bailey was as ignorant of cricket as he was knowledgeable about Van Gogh, an ignorance shared by Watts and his pub sign dealer friend; it took Bailey's wife to identify WG Grace as the subject. Robin Marlar, the distinguished cricket writer, was then shown the pastel - he pointed out that Grace's beard was not so big in 1874. He was 26 years old at the time, had a small beard and, incidentally, was not yet a doctor.

Van Gogh and cricket? In all his voluminous correspondence he never mentions it; whoever would have expected him to? But Bailey was so convinced of the pastel's authenticity that he and Marlar delved deeper.

The lightest scrutiny of Van Gogh's letters reveals that the Loyers ran a school for little boys. In one of his descriptions of it he writes "the sun is shining through the tall acacia trees in the playground and glitters on the roof and windows visible beyond the garden...it is cool in the morning and the boys trot back and forth..." This "back and forth" had always troubled Bailey. "Why back and forth?" "Running between the wickets, of course," said Marlar.

He then pointed out the proximity of Van Gogh's lodgings to the Oval.

They began to realise that Vincent and cricket was not so strange a conjunction as people may think. He was just the cricketing type, as anyone who has spent an afternoon at a run-of-the-mill county game will know. Lonely, religious, psychologically frail young men are among its core audience. (Marlar forbore to ask whether Van Gogh was the sort of boy who might wear open-toed sandals with socks and keep his own score book.) Cricket, incidentally, is a thriving game in Holland nowadays.

Equally germane from the emotional point of view was the choice of Grace as a subject. Not only was he the greatest cricketer of his era; even at 26 he showed signs of becoming what he became - not only one of the most famous Englishmen of his time but one whose manner and appearance spoke of a rustic pre-industrial-revolution age. As the Trinidadian polymath CLR James wrote in Beyond a Boundary: "It was to bleak Sheffield, to dusty Kennington and to grim Manchester that WG brought the life they had left behind. The breezes stirred by his bat had blown in their faces.''

This rusticity and the hardpressed lives of the poor are, of course, leitmotifs of Van Gogh's work; Grace's ability to lift their spirits would certainly have struck a chord with him. Bailey started to look at Van Gogh's later work with new eyes and began to make interesting new connections. He looked back over Van Gogh's chalk study of hands made in 1885. What were those hands holding? A farming implement? So it had always been assumed. But did it not, in fact, bear more resemblance to the placing of hands on a bat handle - Grace's in particular, perhaps. And those drawings of The Sower captioned "after Millet", is that really what they were? Marlar was struck by another resemblance; the action of the lob bowler came to mind. Grace himself bowled overarm, but when Van Gogh was at the Oval in 1874 there were lob bowlers aplenty.

Is it possible that Van Gogh nurtured his interest in cricket in private all those years without telling anybody? Is it possible that he kept abreast of WG Grace, and rendered the more mature hero at some time in the 1880s before sending it back to Kennington?

Certainly, the graphic evidence is not enough, but here is where a deeper psychology comes into play. The love of Eugenie Loyer may have made him happy for some of 1874, but soon he was rejected. On August Bank Holiday, desolate, he left Hackford Road for ever.

The psychologist Jonathan Rifkind has little doubt. Van Gogh's visits to the Oval, where Grace played three times in 1874, coincided with his time of greatest happiness. Throughout his troubled life he retained cricket as a way of keeping that memory alive.

A few questions remain: how did the pastel come back to Kennington? Bailey is pursuing his researches. In the meantime, leading Van Gogh experts around the world are waiting to do battle.