British Masters: My one big chance to get even


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.

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.

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.


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