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British Masters: My one big chance to get even

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James Fox James Fox | 16:00 UK time, Monday, 18 July 2011

A few years ago I was at a conference on 20th Century painting. As I queued up for a coffee in the canteen I overheard a French historian describe Britain as "the land without modern art".

His friends all laughed in agreement. I was livid. And ever since I've been determined to prove them wrong.

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James Fox discusses Stanley Spencer's The Resurrection, Cookham

That's why you may notice the occasional gleam of vengeance in my eyes during British Masters.

Because when, last May, the BBC asked me to make this series, I knew it was my one big chance to get even. I just hope they get BBC Four in France.

In British Masters I argue that, despite the endless talk of Paris and New York, some of the best art of the 20th Century was actually made here in the UK. We just haven't told anyone about it yet.

This series plans to do just that. It focuses on the lives and work of some of our greatest modern painters.

There are familiar names like Stanley Spencer, Francis Bacon and David Hockney. But we also look at some superb artists you'll probably never have heard of.

I promise you that there will be some jaw-dropping stories.

Episode one investigates a murder mystery contained within a painting by Walter Sickert.

Episode two explores the artistic fall-out of Stanley Spencer's extraordinary romantic life.

And episode three concludes with the heartbreaking suicide of the artist Keith Vaughan. I'm sure it will move you. It certainly brings tears to my eyes.

But there won't just be human stories. If all you want to see is some terrific art, you won't be disappointed.

Well, I hope you won't be disappointed. Because we all worked really, really hard on the series.

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The story behind Walter Sickert's painting Mornington Crescent Nude

The truth is that when I heard I'd be presenting a BBC documentary I was expecting glamour and dancing girls.

Instead I got repeated 4am starts, endless journeys in smelly vans, and a disgusting diet of sweets from service stations.

But we still had some great moments making British Masters.

The most memorable was filming at Newmarket for episode two.

The sun was rising, thousands of horses were galloping across the grass, and the echoes of their hooves thundered all around. It was one of the most surprisingly beautiful things I've ever seen.

I'm really pleased to have made British Masters. After all, no matter how many people watch it, it will still be a lot more than come to my university lectures.

Dr James Fox is an art historian and the presenter of British Masters.

British Masters continues on BBC Four on Mondays at 9pm and is available in iPlayer until Saturday, 6 August.

For further programme times, please see the upcoming episodes page.

You can watch a guided tour by James Fox on 20th Century British painters on the BBC's Your Paintings site.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    About time! For years we've been told that British art is basically a little bit rubbish. I'm delighted that Fox is here to tell us to start blowing our own trumpets a bit more. Great so far.

  • Comment number 2.

    Well done Fox and well done BBC4. So far you are doing a very good job of getting even. And you're doing it entertainingly as well. A very good series.

  • Comment number 3.

    A marvellous first episode. I liked two things best: the amazing archive, and Fox's willingness to provoke his viewers. This is what we want from BBC4. None of that BBC1 argument-free twaddle.

  • Comment number 4.

    I greatly enjoyed the first episode and am looking forward to the second as it covers a period in British art in which I am particularly interested - a time when, while the continent had become in thrall to the bland sterility of pure abstraction, we Brits tried it out, decided it was a soulless, pointless artistic dead-end and went on, instead in our own unique way. The thing is - when the Beeb announced the series was forthcoming - it was said '..and who better to present it than Dr. Fox..'. Who better? Well, Alexandra Harris, for one, as it was she who wrote the fabulous, bestselling Romantic Moderns, the central thesis of which is that British (and particularly English art of the pre-War period wasn't 'behind' or inferior to continental output, but suffused with soul and passion and sense of place as it is - is in fact intellectually and aesthetically superior... Just a thought...

  • Comment number 5.

    FruityHP: Romantic Moderns was a great book. And you're completely right that it's not about being 'ahead' or 'behind' or 'superior' or 'inferior'; it's about being different. In episode 1 Fox never made those dangerous comparisons. He (like Harris) should be applauded for doing so. It's been too long coming!

  • Comment number 6.

    What a great programme, it featured two of my favorite British painters, Spencer and Munnings.
    Whilst, I think William Coldsteam was being discussed, can anyone help me on the name of one of the contributing artists, his first name was Julian ...... and he looked like he painted the most fantastic tree landscapes

  • Comment number 7.

    After the brilliant David Malone disappeared from the BBC schedule I doubted that films of this intellectual quality would appear again. Congratulations. James Fox is bold, informed and engaging. Looking forward to Episode 3.

  • Comment number 8.


    Karlo: I think the artist was John Wonnacott, but I can't be sure. He was very good.

  • Comment number 9.

    Shocking - but (in 2011, on the BBC) hardly surprising. Dr. J. Fox (Cantab.), stout self-appointed defender of "British" (for which read "English", passim) art (for which read painting, passim) against the blandishments of an unnamed "French historian" (for which read "every Johnny Foreigner who's insulted Our Island Arts in the knowingly provocative fashion most pithily adopted by that Francois Truffaut", passim), gets his three-hour "vengeance" by being on first-name terms with "Stanley", "Alfred" and "Paul" - though not, interestingly, with "Coldstream", a more interesting and profound painter altogether, but also a (whisper it) "socialist". "Paul" gets his nasty Parisian-influenced surrealism explained away by cod-Freudian onscreen reference to his haut(e)-bourgeois "secret places"; Munnings' patrician racin'-and-shootin' canvases are "rescued" from the taint of his drunken RA rants in a sequence of horsey soft-focus country-house nostalgia worthy of the upstairs-downstairs TV revisionism of Baron Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes of West Stafford.

    Meanwhile, BBC TV coverage of the visual arts continues its downward spiral. The central tropes: inescapable background / linking / "commentating" music (here, inevitably, "elegaic" - piano and cello in a wood-panelled Edwardian drawing room acoustic); "stylish" slo-mo contrast-boosted pans across allegedly relevant vistas; sensory and stylistic impact reduced to "lives of the painters" soap-opera biographical titbits; the Oxbridge mug of Our Presenter & Oracle inserted into the frame just often enough for viewers to be Told What To Think instead of being allowed to use their own senses and intellects.

    If the Beeb absolutely MUST peddle a patrician and chauvanistic view of the visual arts (presumably for the purposes of retaining licence-fee revenue come the next Tory review in 2016-17), could we at least have something aspiring to the have-a-look-at-this-while-I-shut-up-for-a-bit-and-actually-these-foreign-johnnies-are-quite-good-at-painting-and-sculpting standards of Clark (Major)'s 'Civilisation'?

    Meanwhile, where's John Berger when we (more than ever) need him? Relegated to occasional outings on Radio 3. With no pictures.

  • Comment number 10.

    HI ramirez2
    thanks for reply, looked up John Wonnacott, lovely work , but it was not him. The artist I am after name began with Julian and he came on after

  • Comment number 11.

    The BBC are to be congratulated for commissioning a series of programmes on British twentieth century art. It is overdue and the series provides a timely reminder of the quality of British painting during this period.

    However the programmes have been marred by the continual use of some outrageously ridiculous hyperbole by the presenter. Dr Fox is keen to brand each successive chosen artist as being the best or the finest. Everyone, it seems, was in some way a genius, especially compared to what was being turned out by those beastly foreigners. In some cases (Spencer for instance) one might agree. But these constant claims of greatness came to a head when he proclaimed that Alfred Munnings was one of the greatest of all British painters. Of course it depends where you draw the line - if you were to construct a list of British artists which extended to perhaps five thousand names then one would be happy with the inclusion of Munnings - maybe even in a somewhat shorter list. But this was obviously not what Dr Fox had in mind. To include Munnings in the same pantheon as Turner, Palmer, Spencer, Constable, Burne-Jones, or indeed any of the other subjects of the second of his programmes, is laughable.

    This constant recourse to overstatement and exaggeration combined with an undercurrent of xenophobia made the experience of watching an otherwise interesting programme irritating and sometimes embarrassing.

  • Comment number 12.


    His name is David Inshaw - and he does paint the most wonderful portraits of trees and landscapes (as well as other things).

  • Comment number 13.

    Hello Geoffrey
    Thanks a lot

  • Comment number 14.

    While I always enjoy a look at good art and background on talented artists I agree with the earlier posts that the jingoistic hyperbole and mixing up English and British are rather annoying.
    So, please BBC 4, do give us more programmes on art and on the less celebrated artists, but could you extend it to a few of the scottish and welsh artists too.

  • Comment number 15.

    The first episode was excellent. So much better than the OTT presentation of the parallel series on the Impressionists. I am gagging at the bit for Part 2.

  • Comment number 16.

    Thank you, your programme is wonderful. Much appreciated

  • Comment number 17.

    Dear all, my teenage sons do not stop often, a snatched conversation between cricket and tennis and facebook is a welcomed delight. The fact that they thoroughly enjoyed the programmes and even watched them again at breakfast time is a testament to Dr James Fox and the production team. Believe me, it has been a watershed for our family life, and we are going off to the local gallery this weekend. The British audience is broad, and programming should provide a balance of interests and styles to reach everybody. It shouldn't necessarily always respond to a single opinion. The programmes did not assume a specialist knowledge or qualifications in order to understand the mystery of the arts. The fact that you brought the subject to life for a new generation of disinterested adolescents and planted seeds of curiosity is to be praised. There may be intellectual points of difference between viewers (and I was waiting for some mention of women artists of the times) but within the schedule time, Fox and the team provided an absorbing, lively presentation of the lives of the artists against the backdrop of events of the twentieth century. Thank you.

  • Comment number 18.


    I forgive the presenter everything if he can produce that sort of reaction.

  • Comment number 19.

    Thank you everyone for your comments. Lindsey -- you have not just made my day; you have made my year. If there was anything I hoped to do in this series, it was to stimulate curiosity. That I've achieved it with your sport-loving teenage sons makes me more happy than I can possibly say.

    But I know the programmes have also stimulated disagreement. General Ludd: I'm sorry you didn't approve of Episode 2. I can't persuade you to like it, but I do promise you that I have no political agenda. My agenda is solely artistic: all I wanted to do was promote the work of a selection of artists I particularly admired. And they came from all different places. I can't think of two painters who had more different political positions than Munnings and Coldstream!

    And to Geoffrey: yes, I think I got overexcited a few too many times during the filming of this series. But it's only because I really do love all the painters we've featured in the programmes, and I want to share my enthusiasm for them. But your criticism is duly noted.

    And finally to Karlo: Geoffrey was correct. The artist you were after is David Inshaw. He's a terrific painter, most famous for "The Badminton Game" owned by the Tate. But in recent years he has been painting a lot of trees. It was a real treat to see the great man in action.

  • Comment number 20.

    Thank you Dr Fox for such an inspirational and insightful series. Your analysis of Spencer and Nash were particularly moving and remind us all of why human beings need to make art in the first place. The best thing about your series is being led back to the original work and I am sure many people will be by this series.

    Your love of the work you discuss is obvious and really there can be no better communication of its value. Ironically art historians often love their own language rather than visual language. It is refreshing to see someone presenting an art history programme who is able to convey the human element within the work and its emotional resonance, both personal and collective.

    I would love to see you shine a light on Scottish Art in a future series.

  • Comment number 21.

    @Geoffrey for what it's worth just to add that while many might agree with you, as critics like in the The Arts Desk http://bit.ly/qbbsjB here, comparing him with Niall Ferguson, who we love or hate, he shows true passion a la AGD or Waldemar, and makes truly great documentary films along with his excellent director & producer, Matthew Hill. Anyway, those are my thoughts. And way superior than say that Sooke chap.

  • Comment number 22.

    Speaking as an artist in the old dictionary sense ...I've thoroughly enjoyed this programme thus far.The xenophobia charge needs to be countered by the need to reflect on the tendency for the British and the art intelligensia particularly to fawn over art from certain localities irrespective of merit.
    Britain is the product of waves of invasion and more peaceable immigration and culturally the English elite not only has or had anti or none English origins(Aristocracy Norman,Monarchy German and the preformation church Roman)there has been a tendency to undervalue certain cultural inputs...the Vikings... and as recent anglo saxon finds have proven were extremely sophisticated despite propaganda to the contrary.The Normans not only attempted to subjugate and eradicate existing cultures in Britain and although our celtic cousins are aware of this tendency,the English themselves suffered genocide and a cultural diktat and a sustained tendency to undervalue local culture as opposed to the continental(yes I am aware the continent was in many ways extremely sophisticated but even in Art Britain has been an important contributor to European and world culture despite the Reformation which to this day causes an active prejudice against visual art amongst art commentators and in popular culture)
    Yes there are many French artists of undoubted genius.... there are of course a great many continental masters worthy of any sincere art lovers respect but this is NOT a universal truth.
    I am afraid there ARE very old prejudices in certain elements of the arts establishment.....it harks back to the tendency to revere ALL things classical>> Graeco Roman and the tendency to elevate second rate artists with arty and usually foereign and exotic names....take for exampleVan Dyke,Holbein, Monet,Degas,and Bonnard...all sound pretty arty but personally I only have respect for ALL but the last.Why? poor draughtsmanship,horrendous use of colour and dull and uninteresting composition...perhaps that is just my view?.....Bonnard ??????
    Certainly with regard to the British Isles the celtic fringes tend to champion their visual artists and I think it fair to say that Scotland suffers less from class barriers and dare I say it PC nonsense....and the standard of art esp in Scotland is generally disproportionately strong ...not because the Scots are naturally more gifted but because they DO champion their local talent(regardless of class) and still have a greater emphasis on art teaching based on discipline and genuine technique as opposed to bull**it.
    Unlike the pseudo left I believe in equa

  • Comment number 23.

    cut off the second half of my posting
    my point is we need to get back to art education which has a strong practical element useful not only in nurturing fine artists in their truest sense but also arming creatives with the skills necessary to be truly world class>>high class design,high class illustration,high class fashion,high technical expertise in film,video games etc
    I am afraid there needs to be a stronger emphasis on quality both in teaching which is AFFORDABLE and AVAILABLE to those with the greatest TALENT....unfortunately gifted individuals from poor backgrounds have impoverished opportunities and perhaps instead of spending MILLIONS on galleries run by an for a pretentious and self interested elite we perhaps need greater balance and a massive shift in emphasis with the arts council to 1)make it more accountable and 2)make it more meritocratic and help Britain acheive even greater prowess in the field of art and design by supporting the very best irrespective of background...and by best I mean the quality of the work as a opposed to an often lame qualification.Some art graduates ARE gifted others are NOT.And many of the greatest creatives are NOT overly academic....Monet wasn't Van Gogh wasn't and a great many more weren't either...perhaps that is why a practical based education makes more sense
    I found the programme to be very informative and didn't feel he was forcing an agenda other than perhaps a tendency to put British art down.

  • Comment number 24.

    I meant counteract the age old prejudice against British culture

  • Comment number 25.

    I have to agree with a number of General Ludd's points. I live in Belgium and have taken art lessons and visited many exhibitions here. A number of 20th century British (English?) artists are held in high esteem here, and we do know that a Francis Bacon exhibition in Paris in the fifties was stormed with enthusiastic crowds chanting "Bacon, Bacon, Bacon" ...

    I find it astonishing to hear it claimed that British artists caused the British public to feel a certain way about their culture. I don't believe art creates cultural trends, but rather that it reflects them.

    Finally, while I appreciate the value of making serious art accessible to the public (and teenagers in particular), the use of glamorous settings, music, and overdramatic narration does feel like dumbing down to me.

  • Comment number 26.

    Does anyone know the name of the music playing during the piece on Sir Alfred Munnings? Been trying to find out what it is for ages the strings are so beautiful.

  • Comment number 27.

    Isn't it just a shame that the presenters ego and corporeal existance gets in the way of the images throughout the programmes. Coupled with standard BBC film technique of artwork, with slow detailed panning in close up and zooming its really impossible to get a good look at these paintings via this medium.

  • Comment number 28.

    I don't know much about art history but have enjoyed this series immensely. However, can someone please explain the complete absence of significant & influential women artists?

  • Comment number 29.

    I have just watched "A New Jerusalem" and was so moved by the presentation of Keith Vaughan's work and your comments about painting at the end. It's just a shame there aren't more female painters up there with the greats - Prunella Clough?

  • Comment number 30.

    Thank you for a truly engaging programme. The story telling if the human element, weaving through the passage of British history, the superb soundtrack all proved to enhance the beauty of new and familiar paintings.

    The Cornfield, 1918 by John Nash, has remained with me since your second programm. It may not be a gritty or difficult subject such as last nights examples but far better, it evokes the same bright optimism I find in my now rather old Raoul Duffy print of 'The Wheatfield', so I am spending this morning trying to acquire Nash's print. I can't wait to have it on my wall, thank you for the introduction!

  • Comment number 31.

    Watched the last installment " A New Jerusalem " , I unfortunately missed the first episode, look forward to it being repeated at a later date.
    Last nights episode was very interesting, handled very well by James Fox , I have loved his style of making the programmes, not getting bogged down with his own views and opinions as so many other presenters tend to do.
    Finally, during the discussion on Francis Bacon ...... who was the woman talking about him, and what a brilliant sketch book she had with those excellent sketches of Bacon.
    Well done James Fox

  • Comment number 32.

    Thank you James, your program last night 25th July, the last few moments made me cry. Your program was wonderful.. thank you so much .Nel

  • Comment number 33.

    Thanks for your comment karlo (#31),

    If you want to catch up on British Masters, the episodes are currently available to watch and download in iPlayer until the following dates:

    Episode one: We Are Making A New World - Saturday, 6 August
    Episode two: In Search Of England - Saturday, 6 August
    Episode three: A New Jerusalem - Monday, 1 August


    Assistant Content Producer, BBC TV blog

  • Comment number 34.

    Thoroughly enjoyed this series. A fresh pair of eyes and a lucid, fresh approach.

  • Comment number 35.

    A most enjoyable final programme and a well argued defence of the status of painting in the face of onslaughts from the fashionable art world.

  • Comment number 36.

    I've just been catching up with this series on iPlayer. The subject matter sounded fantastic to me, already having some interest in a few British painters of the 20th Century; having no in-depth knowledge whatsoever but a desire to learn more. This sounded like exactly the sort of programme for which I am so grateful for the existence of the BBC. But, my word, episode one was a struggle. Such were the heights of the absurdity reached by the grand sweeping statements about history, the wild exaggeration of individual paintings' impact on wider society and the simply relentless hyperbole of the presenter in the first episode that, I regret to say, I don't think I could stand two more episodes like that. Does the presenter calm down a little as the series progresses? Things can surely be interesting for their own merit without everything necessarily having to be utterly ground-breaking, unprecedented or expecting the audience to believe that a (relatively little known) nude portrait genuinely shocked an entire nation. I'm not sure if this is an example of the BBC dumbing-down, or the presenter's own natural tendencies, but I'm afraid that the ceaseless hyperbole simply made it impossible to take any of his arguments seriously. A wasted opportunity, but I do hope that that the BBC follows up on this fascinating period of British art in future.

  • Comment number 37.

    British Masters????!. I sincerely hope that this is never seen abroad, especially in the USA, where most of the population think that the UK is called England. This series of programmes, especially the second episode, would only bolster that view....nice to know that during the second world war, we were all fighting for England. no wonder the SNP are so popular.

  • Comment number 38.

    Anyone know what's the song on the sound track of the third programme is at 46.45? Thanks for any help you can give.

  • Comment number 39.

    Great series. Would have liked to see a bit more of Ravilious, Bawden etc also women like Winifred Nicholson, Mary Newcomb but I am definitely convinced of the power of British 20th C painting! Please anybody who has not yet, go to Sandham memorial chapel it is outstanding and very moving as well as glorious

  • Comment number 40.

    Thank you to James for a fresh and iconoclastic view of British art. Now how about looking at the work of Cecil Collins, visionary (rather than Surrealist)painter and extraordinary educationalist? He continues the visionary thread of some great British artists like Blake and Samuel Palmer, and deserves a program in his own right.

  • Comment number 41.

    Dear ksn1066,

    You may have found the track by now but if not it's by Lali Puna from their album Faking The Books and is called Small Things.

    Hope that helps.

    And Bertie1977, we used three or four tracks to help tell the story of Alfred Munnings so please let me know what kind of pictures are shown over the music you're after and i'll try and help you out.


  • Comment number 42.

    A little late to join the party, but it means I should get to be commenter #42 and that suits me fine!

    I'm also conscious that I'm commenting after the programme's producer and director so I might as well ask (assuming that activity on this thread is brought to the attention of those who have previously commented): is the piano music used not long after the track 'ksn1066' enquired about (in the last ten minutes of the third programme at the start of the sad account of Keith Vaughan) a Thomas Newman piece? It sounded like his style and just possibly I might have been trying to work out the music by ear.....

    Now excuse me a moment while I contend parts of comment #9 posted by 'GeneralLudd'. Three things:

    1. I only watched 2/3 episodes (the first and last) and yes, I will happily be the umpteenth person to agree that mention of specifically Irish, Scottish or Welsh artists is scarce to none (unless indeed the second episode zoomed out of "just England" for a bit). There also seemed to be a decided lack of female artistes/women in general unless they were hauled in as a "talking head" to comment on an artist. (Though to give credit where it's due, I thought Rosalind Thuillier's comments [in the third episode, on Graham Sutherland - an artist I had never heard of prior to the programme] were very interesting with regards to the apparent divide between the man's character and art).

    2. Unless the episode I missed deviated from form - perhaps it was presented with nationalist bunting and St George crosses emblazoned everywhere as "foreign" art got put through a wood-chipper with members of the BNP, EDL and Veritas Party invited to cheer on? - I failed to note specifically xenophobic sentiments so much as just an overall absence of mention of art movements outside of England at all (regardless how much influence they may or may not have had on the artists featured...)
    So whilst (as hopefully indicated by my first point) the programme might be better suited to the title 'English Painters' over 'British Masters' [although frankly, which makes a better impression and is subsequently more likely to draw viewers?] titled either way, it's a pretty big hint as to the programme's main focus.


  • Comment number 43.

    3. A final, more serious point I wish to make:
    You know what's encouraging? That we /note/ these things. You clearly weren't another viewer just being "Told What To Think" and neither was I.
    On the contrary. I'm an undergrad student (Sussex, if that matters) and whilst my subject is English Literature, I recorded the first programme for its content relating to a First World War topic I'm studying and took notes. Forgive the brief banal detail but I use narrow-rule A4 paper and have rather small handwriting. I filled both sides.
    I recorded the last programme because of how much I enjoyed the first one and took notes on it not out of academic necessity as before but because I /wanted/ to. Some of the notes may have been verbatim transcriptions of quotes, but if so it was because I found them tremendously evocative (Paul Nash's letter to his wife, Keith Vaughan's last diary entry and the stanza from Baudelaire's 'Eldorado Banal' on the reverse of one of his canvases...) Beyond that, did I do nothing other than sit back, nod in agreement and passively admire the artwork? No.
    + "The only human presence" in Hockney’s 'A Bigger Splash' might not be whoever has just leapt in and is out of sight submerged in the pool. It's possible the empty chair in the background might be "their" chair, but what if it's not? Might we, the viewer, otherwise be an absent spectator?
    + Is the dark blue figure (that struck me as solitary, aloof, passive, alienated) in Vaughn's 'Eldorado Banal'/'9th Assembly of Figures' "hopelessly out of date" Vaughan himself? In light of his suicide and despite the prone figure in the painting featuring more prominently in the foreground, might it otherwise be an anthropomorphic representation of death?
    + And on that same topic, the sad message I came away with at the end of Fox's initially disparaging critique of Bacon's work (the piece under scrutiny 'Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion') was that: Death doesn’t have to be something you've experienced to become a great artist, but it helps...?

    Maybe in the grand scheme of things these ponderings and the programme itself don't really matter; but what I think /does/ matter is that I felt compelled to wonder in the first place.

    1. For a show with "British" in the title, there was a decided lack of Irish, Welsh or Scottish artists.
    2. That said, the "British" bit is a fairly unsubtle hint that art from the rest of the world – regardless of its merit and influence – is unlikely to feature in the programme.
    3. Some people do /not/ necessarily sit-tight whilst being "Told What To Think" whilst watching programmes (as this comment-thread demonstrates).

    N.B. If my tone reads as patronising in part, consider it reactionary to a comment that comes across as over-cynical and somewhat aggressive.

    P.S. (@'karlo’' This may be obsolete given your query was posted before this series disappeared from iPlayer, but the woman who talked about and had excellent sketches of Francis Bacon was Claire Shenstone :)


  • Comment number 44.

    I hope James Fox and Matt Hill are hanging their heads in shame at this series.
    Riddled with inaccuracies, devoid of context, full of opinions presented as facts, the only redeeming feature was the beautiful works of art (when Fox wasn't standing in front of them).
    I agree that Dr. Fox is a very plausible presenter, which almost makes things worse. Would people put up with Brian Cox saying that Neptune was closer to the Sun than Mercury or David Starkey saying that Henry VIII had 4 wives and that in his opinion Henry was an easy-going, kindly soul? Yet we are expected to put up with just such claptrap from Fox.
    The problem is that his plausibility, and the fact that the programme is on the BBC, means that people actually believe what Fox says - Emily above writes of the "sad account" of Keith Vaughan without knowing how hopelessly inaccurate it was.
    A question to Matt Hill - did no-one think of employing a schoolchild to correct the vast number of mistakes that littered every programme?
    I have no time for A. A. Gill, but even he described Fox's argument as "embarassing, arrant nonsense".
    A golden opportunity on a golden age in British art carelessly tossed into the gutter.

  • Comment number 45.

    @'YannickTreboul': I hate to highlight my own ignorance, but what is the accurate account of Keith Vaughn then? (I'm genuinely interested)
    It's just that in the programme Dr. Fox was reading the last excerpt of his diary (as I wrote - it's one of the things I transcribed verbatim...) I mean, easily one could task a runner/researcher with writing any old crap in any old book for the sake of dramatic television; but the only - albeit admittedly weak - premise I have against someone throwing together a fake diary [asides from the obvious: 'Why on earth bother??'] is that: having recorded the programme and transcribed the odd thing, I had cause to pause it. A tiny fragment of the stuff written on the page that was in shot wasn't read out (it concerned the day before ["yesterday"] and someone with the initials 'H.H'. Maybe that might mean something to someone who has otherwise studied the artist in depth, I don't know...)
    Also, there was consistency between the handwriting of that diary excerpt and one read by a friend of his a few minutes earlier on (but if we go with a runner/researcher conspiracy theory, then easily that might not prove a thing :/)

    I suppose I could have a raid around Wikipedia, but I suspect that would defeat what seems to be yours and 'General Ludd's point of not taking someone - whatever their level of knowledge - at their word.

    And on the other hand, maybe you were (after all my rambling) just objecting to my use of the word "sad"?

  • Comment number 46.

    A very enjoyable series which admittedly does give a hostage to fortune by appearing to make a link between artistic significance and nationality. Still other nations wouldn't be squeemish about doing so. Incidentally does anyone know how I might find out some the background music played in the third film. During the Sutherland crucifixion and the part about Keith Vaughan there were particularly beautiful pieces played which I don't recognise. Any ideas?

  • Comment number 47.

    Hi Emily
    Sorry to take so long to get back to you, but I have been away looking at art outside Britain (it does exist, and helps to put British art into an international context, where it so richly belongs!). Keith Vaughan’s final words are incredibly moving – there is an excellent Guardian article by William Boyd (March 8, 2003) that discusses them. Unfortunately, James Fox had an agenda, which was that Vaughan committed suicide because he was “defeated” and that his art had become unfashionable. Nothing could be further from the truth. To this end, Fox got someone to read out some of Vaughan’s diary entries that were written after Vaughan had seen the New Generation exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1964; not just before he died in 1977. Vaughan had had a highly successful retrospective at the same gallery in 1962, but he was a born pessimist, who always took note of one bad review rather than the many good ones.
    Vaughan did not have “failing health” as Fox claims; he was dying of terminal cancer.The man who published Vaughan’s diaries, Alan Ross, doubted that one could really call it suicide, because Vaughan “was merely hastening a process which was already very far gone”. This quote is taken from John Bulmer’s superb 30 minute film on Vaughan (1984) from which Fox “stole” the life-class scene in his own programme – Fox never seems to acknowledge the work of others. The film is available online in the ‘Arts on Film Archive’ (University of Westminster), but unfortunately it can only be watched from a “.ac.uk” address (i.e. at a University).
    Fox also failed to mention that Vaughan was a believer in euthenasia, and wrote that ”there should be just as much rejoicing over an elderly suicide as there is over a new born birth”.
    2012 is the anniversary year of Vaughan’s birth and the fiftieth anniversary of his huge Whitechapel retrospective, so look out for exhibitions at the University of Aberystwyth (who have a Vaughan archive) and the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester.
    Finally, if you really want to see some criticism of Dr. Fox, have a look at the website of the Wyndham Lewis Society, where correspondent after correspondent, quite rightly, tears Dr. Fox apart.

  • Comment number 48.

    What was the name of the artists that was a soldier and painted a field the day after a battle broke out with mangled burned trees and a blood red sky?

  • Comment number 49.

    The picture is "We are Making a New World" by Paul Nash (1918), which is in the collection of the Imperial War Museum. Nash also produced arguably the most iconic image of the Second World War, "Totes Meer" or Dead Sea (1940-41). Inexplicably not mentioned in the programmes, it is currently on exhibition at Tate Britain.


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