Another master comes to light

Lecturer Dr James Fox presents British Masters

Bringing an apple for Sir as a token of appreciation is old hat. These days, students furnish their favourite teachers with whole new careers.

At least, that's what a group of Cambridge University undergraduates have done for their young lecturer James Fox (pictured).

A few years ago they wrote to the BBC recommending the art historian for a spot on the telly. A year later, arts commissioning editor Mark Bell invited the unsuspecting academic to do a taster tape.

'It was flattering,' admits Fox, who has never been able to identify his student supporters. 'And it's amazing that the BBC took notice of them. Presenting is such a competitive environment - such an impenetrable world - and the fact that an off-the-cuff gesture can lead to this is heartening.'

Great British art

A first commission from BBC Four controller Richard Klein saw Fox front a one-off programme about The Art of Cornwall, broadcast last December. Now British Masters, his three-part BBC Four celebration of 20th century British art - part of BBC Television's Art Revealed season - is about to raise both his own profile and that of a neglected era of artistic endeavour.

'Traditionally Britain has been seen by the rest of the world as bad at art and music and good at trade, engineering and literature - and that was never more apparent than in the 20th century,' explains Fox, who ends his exploration before the rise of the YBAs [Young British Artists]. 'The rest of the world got involved in cubism, surrealism - all the isms. We didn't engage with those movements, we did our own thing. But that doesn't mean we didn't create some great British art.'

The series mixes contemplation of famous pieces - such as Hockney's A Bigger Splash and Francis Bacon's Triptych - with the work of less familiar names. Like Londoner William Coldstream, who went up north in the 1930s to paint Bolton's industrial landscape, and Alfred Munnings, who has been filed under old fashioned and irrelevant for too long. 'People hate him because he liked old, traditional things like fox hunting,' explains the presenter. 'We attempt to rehabilitate his paintings, with the help of a lovely little museum in Devon dedicated to his work.'

Grisly tale

Fox's passion for British art through the 1900s led to some tough decisions. 'I'd written detailed documents about 60 or more artists - the exec producer cut it down to a handful a programmes. We chose people whose art would be surprising and pleasing, and who had great stories.'

So Walter Sickert opens episode one with a grisly tale. 'He was fascinated by murder and serial killers,' explains Fox. 'Some even thought he was Jack the Ripper. We analyse his painting of a murdered prostitute in Agatha Christie style.'

Then there's Percy Wyndham Lewis - an 'odious and horrible' man - whose tumour-sporting brain still survives for scientific research purposes. 'We tracked it down and there's a scene where I'm walking through the pathology museum holding the brain of Percy Wyndham Lewis.'

And viewers will be drawn in to the dramatic death of self-taught, post-war painter Keith Vaughan. 'He was an obsessive masturbator for 40 years and when he wasn't doing that he was writing a diary.' Fox shows viewers the diary page scrawled as the artist committed slow suicide. 'He'd taken an overdose of sleeping pills and you can see where his pen slid off the page as he slumped to his death.'

'Funny and cheeky'

If there's no holding back in telling artists' life stories Fox is also honest in his appreciation of their work. 'Art programmes are often too high brow, too demanding, too homeworky,' he complains. 'I try to be more irreverent, funny and cheeky - and if a painting's rubbish, I'll say so.'

Fox discovered that tv absorbed more time than the advised 'ten days filming per episode'. A self-confessed 'control freak', he devoted hours to making the series 'as good as possible', forcing academia into a back seat. And he was delighted to do so.

'Hundreds of thousands of people may watch these programmes. That may not sound many in tv terms, but it's enormous compared to the number who attend my lectures.'

British Masters, from July 11, BBC Four


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