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Romancing The Stone: The Golden Ages Of British Sculpture

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Alastair Sooke Alastair Sooke | 11:05 UK time, Wednesday, 23 February 2011

When the BBC asked me to present the BBC Four series Romancing The Stone: The Golden Ages Of British Sculpture, I jumped at the chance - because I have long believed that sculpture in this country suffers unfairly from neglect.

Our towns and cities are full of civic statuary that we routinely ignore - in part, admittedly, because so much of it is stiff and lifeless, or bound up with propaganda, extolling the virtues of a wealthy and powerful individual or the state.

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In my experience, art historians have often taught us that British sculpture isn't a patch on our native painting, and that it pales in comparison with the European tradition.

But I believe that the triumphs of our sculpture occupy the zenith of British art - up there with paintings by great artists such as Blake and Hogarth, Turner and Constable.

It saddens me that sculptors such as Flaxman, Chantrey and Alfred Gilbert (who designed Eros in Piccadilly Circus) have been largely forgotten.

So if there is an underlying subtext to Romancing The Stone, it is this: to restore British sculpture to its rightful place, playing a central role in the evolving drama of the nation's art.

I felt thrilled to be working with such a talented team - I don't know about you, but I think that some of the shots of the works themselves, captured by the director Mark Halliley and the cameraman Ian Salvage, are nothing short of magnificent.

For instance, the footage, from the second episode, of Flaxman's marble The Fury of Athamas, at Ickworth House in Suffolk, transforms the sculpture from an embarrassingly overblown, youthful aberration, as it is occasionally characterised in the textbooks, to a defiant tour de force, challenging an august tradition of sculpture stretching all the way back to the Laocoon of ancient Rome.

Flaxman's early masterpiece features in the trail for the series that can be seen across the BBC at the moment - accompanied by some simply beautiful, haunting music by Erik Satie.

We filmed the series last summer. We were blessed with the weather - and a relaxed and sunny feeling graced the close-knit group working day-to-day on the three films, even in moments of potential crisis.

Alastair chisels the alabaster

I remember one incident in particular, when a charming sculptor called Kim Meredew, who features in the first two episodes, was demonstrating how easy it is to carve alabaster, which was a very popular material in the Middle Ages and is almost as soft as goat's cheese when it first comes out of the ground.

To begin with, Kim got me to hack at a slab of granite, in order to feel the difference.

There was a horrific, heart-in-my-mouth moment, which you can see in the first film, when I gave the chisel an almighty cack-handed thump with a mallet, forcing it to slip and graze Kim's fingers.

I was terrified I'd chopped them off.

But - thank God - Kim just gave me a big grin, assuring me that he's always accidentally savaging his fingers with heavy-duty tools, and carried on.

Kim came along to the launch of the series at the Royal Academy; when I shook his hand, I couldn't help checking that it was intact (thankfully, it is).

I like to think that Kim's cheery, happy-go-lucky attitude reflected the mood of all of us working on the series. I hope you are enjoying the programmes as much as we all enjoyed making them.

Alastair Sooke is presenter of Romancing The Stone: The Golden Ages Of British Sculpture.

Romancing The Stone continues on BBC Four as part of the Focus On Sculpture season. For programme times, please see the upcoming episodes page.

The series is also available in iPlayer until Wednesday, 2 March.

As deputy art critic at the Daily Telegraph, Alastair has written this article about the series.

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


  • Comment number 1.

    Hi really enjoyed the programmes. Can you tell me the name of the classical piano piece used in the trailers for the golden ages of British sculpture.

  • Comment number 2.

    My god these programs were bad. terribly directed, ineloquently delivered speech, badly researched with no sense of context. He is the polar opposite of Matthew Collings.

    Sooke is the worst art critic on TV.

  • Comment number 3.

    Did anyone reply to,|Paul?I too would like to know the name of the haunting music that accompanied the trailer of Romancing the stone

  • Comment number 4.

    This is a terrific series – inspiring, engaging, and thoroughly enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed hearing artists talk about their work and ideas. I’d say more, but I must get back to my macramé.

  • Comment number 5.

    A timely series, but a thoroughly flawed one. Let's put aside the preposterous music for now. My problem was the fact that it had no opinions. Sooke seems to have no views whatsoever, on anything -- and any he does have are so unbelievably predictable. This, I'm afraid, is what happens when the BBC gives a whole art series to someone who's only been studying art for the best part of two weeks.

    Shame also on BBC Four. I watch BBC Four to get ideas and arguments that BBC1 and BBC2 don't have the guts or brains to do. But this watched like a flatulent BBC1 series -- basically just a long line of 'ooh and here's another thing I like'. Let's get some opinions. And let's get some presenters who are capable of having them.

  • Comment number 6.

    I contacted the BBC to ask the title of the incidental music and got a rambling standard response:
    "All available information about music used in our promotional trails can be found on the programme’s website or the individual pages on the BBC Programmes website....
    ...We’re aware that not all requested music information will be available. However, we log details of all enquiries we receive on our database, and we regularly provide reports to programmes on the nature and type of these enquiries, with a view to encouraging better provision of information that audiences are requesting."

    I can't find any information on the programme site about any of the music used in this series. I assume the BBC collects the information because it may have to pay royalties. But the response directed me to this blog. So, I pay the BBC to get ignored! Lazy, or what?

  • Comment number 7.

    Hi Paul (#1), Rellerbeck (#3) and Paul Mitchell (#6), it's taken a bit of time but I've checked with the programme team for you and the music in the trailer is Gnossienne 1 by Erik Satie, played by Pascal Rogé.

    Hope that's useful for you!

    Assistant Content Producer, BBC TV blog

  • Comment number 8.

    Thank you Gary. Well done.It seems to have intrigued a lot of people and now the mystery is finally solved and we can hum it, even play it, to our hearts'content!

  • Comment number 9.

    The first two episodes were brilliant and clever and taught me a lot about the 'why' of British sculpture. The relationship between the grand tour, aristocracy and architecture were handled well (in fact the way that sculpture was placed within its architectural context was excellent) and thanks for all the stuff on Flaxman and Gilbert. The Brits do wacky so well.

    But the last episode shewed that Alastair Sooke hasn't really much of a handle on or liking for 20thC sculpture. It's too easy to dismiss Moore as an establishment stooge and I think that there is a strong whiff of snobbery in the way that Gormley (the son of land owning farmers) dismisses the considerable achievements of the son of a mine manager. (He comes under a similar attack from the patrician Lucien Freud in Martin Gaynors recent book). There was no mention of the influence of non-euclidian geometry. Go look at the cases of solid equations in the science museum, they are beautiful and apparently a real influence on Moore's development. And it was criminal to show Hepworth without mentioning the influence of Naum Gabo but perhaps that would have made her appear as his faint reflection.
    And we could have done with less of the 'expressing the inner self' wiffle which sounded more like 'I don't know what I'm talking about'.

    However I did enjoy the way Sooke made Gormley squirm- There is a lot I like in Gormley but.I think it's about time his pretentions were pricked.

    But thanks for the series

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm an A level teacher and have shown elements of the series with real enthusiasm to my students.

    They're well pitched and A G Dixon needs someone else about for balance.

    They enjoyed it much so and I like Sooke, he's enthused and brings to life Art that is both overlooked in the everyday and that could be seen and dry in relation to more contemporary works.

    I'd like to have seen him challenge Hirst a bit more and yes it was good to see him challenge Gormleys image a little.

  • Comment number 11.

    7. At 10:12am on 25th Feb 2011, Gary Andrews (Assistant Content Producer, BBC TV blog) wrote:

    ".....I hope that's helpful to you!"

    What an extraordinarily patronising response from an employee of the BBC!

    It's great that someone at the BBC took the trouble to seek out and provide some information requested by a viewer, but why is it necessary to impart it with an implied sense of grievance by stressing the trouble involved? And then to close the message with such a stupid comment! How could it be anything other than helpful to have a specific and rather easily understood request fulfilled?

    There's a distinct touch of Basil Fawlty in your manner of expressing yourself, Mr Andrews. I'm sure it's inadvertent, but that is how it comes across.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hi andre1960,

    That really wasn't meant to sound patronising or offensive.

    It wasn't any trouble at all on my part to find out this information.

    Anyway, I don't want to steer this topic away from Romancing The Stone, so please do continue to leave your feedback and questions here. It's fascinating to read.

    By the way, for anybody who's asked about the music on the trail, the information is now also up on the show's programme page along with a link to Pascal Roge's website.


    Assistant Content Producer, BBC TV blog

  • Comment number 13.

    Parts 1 and 2 of this series were available on the iPlayer and indeed I downloaded them. My wife, who is taking an Art course assumed Part 3 would also be - but now we come to try to view it, we can't. Why is this and how can we now see this last programme of the series? It's very disappointing.

  • Comment number 14.

    Quite disappointed Hirst got away totally lightly as usual, why can't we have some one like Robert Hughes to give him a good going over (I wish Richard Dawkins was an art critic, i'd love to see Dawkins versus Hirst).
    He always comes across as being terribly shallow and dishonest, trying to blind you with salesman's patter; comparing himself to Michelangelo and Da Vinci, you couldn't make it up. There is a difference between painting some spots and the Sistine Chapel! Obviously once you painted one spot, its very tedious - so employ someone else to do it, then sell it for an obscene profit. No mention of the extreme and obvious debt to Duchamp, Jeff Koons, Gerhard Richter and numerous others. Man of ideas? Plenty of artists have painted photo realistically, but they actually did the difficult part themselves. He is the prime Emperor with new clothes and no ideas.

  • Comment number 15.

    tdaviesuk is correct. Why isn't Part 3, broadcast on 23rd February, but repeated on the 27th, available on iPlayer?

    I agree with most of what psiman says above. Perhaps the BBC think Robert Hughes is too old at 72, and indeed Brian Sewell at 79. Or both too controversial? We need to see more of them both, while there's still time (if I may put it like that - and I'm only a month younger than Hughes).

    I've just seen the National Gallery's new Gossaert exhibition, and also read Sewell's commentary on it in today's London "Evening Standard". Sewell often writes rubbish, and of course he's irritating, but he's always worthy of attention, and I found his observations on this exhibition extremely illuminating.

    Some of the comments above on Alastair Sooke are unnecessarily wounding, and largely mistaken. I take it that he is setting out to be a commentator rather than a critic, and not to address a highly informed audience, and on that basis I think he succeeds. As a Londoner (and, yes, I'm afraid we are around 14% of the UK population), I just wish he had tied his third episode more explicitly into the current exhibition of Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy, which is inadequate beyond belief.

  • Comment number 16.

    I thoroughly enjoyed all 3 programmes, even though I expected to hate the third.
    Alastair Sooke is fresh faced but that's not his problem and I enjoyed his presentation style.
    As with many artists and art lovers I have a range of likes and dislikes.
    I also think it fair to say all ages of art have work of a varied quality,and I also think it fair to say some NAMES get placed on pedestals beyond criticism,and others of sometimes superior merit are forgotten or worse still discredited.
    Perhaps I am old fashioned but I preferred it when words where used in their most appropriate sense,although in the world of art there is a perverse tendency to use words in their OPPOSITE sense.

    Wikipedia definition
    Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging items (often with symbolic significance) in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, photography, sculpture, and paintings. The meaning of art is explored in a branch of philosophy known as aesthetics, and even disciplines such as history and psychology analyze its relationship with humans and generations.

    Traditionally, the term art was used to refer to any skill or mastery. This conception changed during the Romantic period, when art came to be seen as "a special faculty of the human mind to be classified with religion and science".[1] Generally, art is made with the intention of stimulating thoughts and emotions.

    Fine Art?????....perhaps I'm strange but I associate the word "fine" with quality !!!!
    and a fine artist should be able to imagine,interpret or empathise in a way which shows percievable ability,and preferably in a manner(at the highest level)which is able to engage the emotions or provoke thought .

    "The whole Business of Man is the Arts & things Common" William Blake

    ‘Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.’ Leonardo Da Vinci.

    I believe great art passes both acid tests,whereas the contrived,the pretentious and the sub standard does NOT.

    In a modern democracy I don't believe any art scene should have an absolute stranglehold.

    Whether that was the often dull and unimaginative representative style which WAS formerly cherished by the art establishment(Edwardian times and before)....or the anti art favoured by the pseudo elite who favour the pseudo intellectualism and the written and spoken word over the quality of the image.

    Given that there is such a disparity in taste and values regarding art I believe art should be open to a wide range of views and styles about art.

    Art should NOT be the diktat of a priveleged elite and perversely Contemporary Art suffers from being dominated by persons who AREN'T artists.

    I suspect that the presenter of this specific programme has a different taste to myself but I found the programmes to be diverse in content,not overly perscriptive and not a distorted history lesson(ommision of valid information and mistruths) made to fit an agenda,or taste for exclusivity.

    AGD in his style is less aloof superficially than the late and great Kenneth Clarke but ironically Mr Clarke did far more to encourage a love of art amongst the general public than Mr Andrew Graham Dixon ever has or tried to do....although I suspect they both came from a similar social mould.
    When AGD comments on older art history he generally comes across as being a genuine and knowledgeable commentator,who does his research whereas his commentary on the contemporary it is sometimes an opportunity for him to indulge his own fantasies and prejudices.

    It should NOT be the BBC's remit to champion any specific agenda artwise and as a lover of art(an artist) and art history I am a little more demanding than is general,in that I'm unimpressed by the tendency of some art historians(modern and otherwise) to have a story then fit pieces of information AFTER THE EVENT to create a scenario that does not resemble an accurate reading of the contemporary scene at the time eg Impressionists were not as influential this side of the Channel(at least not for some considerable time) as is commonly suggested,somewhat less though than some naturalist painters like Jules Bastien Lepage for example .
    I find it amusing that Henry Moore should be described as being of humble stock given that he was the son of a Mine Manager....I admire some of his work but he hardly suffered dire hardship.
    The art scene has always largely been a means for the privileged to make good especially those lacking ability in other areas(requiring academic excellence), even when they lack artistic talent.
    I don't have a problem with artists of superior talent of ANY background rising to the top but I do have a problem with substandard art getting preferential treatment at publicly funded galleries or at Number 10.
    Despite blurb to the contrary Contemporary Art has weak anti establishment credentials and tendency to communicate oh so very little.
    Of the 20C artists represented I rated Epstein and Gill most highly, albeit alarmed by the latters lifestyle.
    I have been generally pleased by the attempt by the BBC to represent the suffering majority,who love watercolours(Sheila Hancock Prog) and have an appreciation of a more populist way of working(Rolf Harris)
    True Art is a very broad church and alongside many keen amateurs and professional creatives I am very aware that art tends to be infected with those with a need for social pretentions rather than having outstanding artistic ability.

  • Comment number 17.

    I recorded this on Sky+ and have just got round to watching it. It was a great series (although I missed part1). Fantastic insight into the history of sculpture. Script delivery a little bit laboured occasionally but overall well done. Wanted to suggest my friends watch it but discover it's already gone from iplayer. Please repeat the series and let me know when it's on, s I can catch ep. 1

  • Comment number 18.

    Hi tdaviesuk (#13) and Michael Wadsworth (#15), episode three of Romancing The Stone: The Golden Age Of British Sculpture is now available for viewing and download in iPlayer again, although it expires at 11.59pm tonight (Tuesday, 8 March).


    Assistant Content Producer, BBC TV blog

  • Comment number 19.

    Is there any chance that part 3 might be available on iPlayer again? It seems to have come and gone so quickly that I missed it.

  • Comment number 20.

    This is a reply to Gary. Unhappily, I missed the very brief opportunity to glimpse the reappearance of Part 3 on the iPlayer. Why can't we have a proper opportunity to catch it - consistent with Parts 1 and 2. So I echo mrsharryh's plea - to which you have not replied. I can't see what the problem is.... is there something we don't know. I'll try to come back to this blog in a couple of days, to see whether there is an answer.

  • Comment number 21.

    Hi tdaviesuk (#20) and mrsharryh (#19), the whole series of Romancing The Stone: The Golden Age Of British Sculpture is being repeated next week on BBC One, as part of the Sign Zone, so will be accompanied by a signer for the deaf.

    Episode one is on Monday, 21 March, episode 2 on Tuesday, 22 March and episode 3 on Thursday, 24 March. The series catch-up will be available in iPlayer until Thursday, 31 March.

    You can also check all upcoming episodes for the programme here


    Assistant Content Producer, BBC TV blog

  • Comment number 22.

    Thanks, Gary. I am not sure that we'll be up at 0300 to watch - but if we can catch Episode 3 on the iPlayer until March 31st, then we'll be very happy. Thanks again.


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