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Romancing The Stone: The Golden Ages Of British Sculpture

Alastair Sooke


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.

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.

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.

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