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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  • Comment number 49. Posted by YannickTreboul

    on 6 Oct 2011 15:54

    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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  • Comment number 48. Posted by Nicola

    on 29 Sept 2011 18:41

    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?

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  • Comment number 47. Posted by YannickTreboul

    on 2 Sept 2011 08:59

    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.

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  • Comment number 46. Posted by Charles Rowney

    on 24 Aug 2011 21:14

    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?

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  • Comment number 45. Posted by Emily C

    on 19 Aug 2011 01:54

    @'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"?

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  • Comment number 44. Posted by YannickTreboul

    on 12 Aug 2011 16:25

    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.

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  • Comment number 43. Posted by Emily C

    on 10 Aug 2011 20:17

    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 :)


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  • Comment number 42. Posted by Emily C

    on 10 Aug 2011 20:03

    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.


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  • Comment number 41. Posted by Matt Hill

    on 29 Jul 2011 19:32

    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.


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  • Comment number 40. Posted by Diane Barker

    on 27 Jul 2011 21:26

    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.

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