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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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.

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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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