British Masters: My one big chance to get even

Monday 18 July 2011, 17:00

James Fox James Fox Presenter

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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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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 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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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...

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    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!

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    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

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    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.

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    Comment number 8.

    EVEN BETTER THAN THE FIRST! WOW!

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

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    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.

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    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

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    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.

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    Comment number 12.

    Karlo,

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

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    Comment number 13.

    Hello Geoffrey
    Thanks a lot

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    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.

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    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.

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    Comment number 16.

    Thank you, your programme is wonderful. Much appreciated

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    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.

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    Comment number 18.

    Lindsey

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

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    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.

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    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.

 

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