Wednesday, 18 May 2011

This Green and Pleasant Land: Art on BBC4

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr & Mrs Andrews 1750
Four hundred years of art history in ninety minutes? If something sounds too good to be true then it usually is, and BBC4's latest art programme was a bit of a dog's dinner. Sorry, 'eclectic' is the word I was looking for, but I was put in mind of dogs and their dinners by a strange and wonderful segment of the show in which a countryman with a lurcher and a box of ferrets went rabbit hunting. The dog sniffs out the bunny, the countryman sends in the ferret, and the rabbit emerges to find its neck swiftly broken. With this chap around, 'Watership Down' would have been about three hundred pages shorter.

John Constable, Chain Pier, Brighton 1826-7
What on earth, you may wonder, has this to do with the history of landscape painting? Hang on... No, I can't remember, but the ferrets were amazing - the personification of cute, furry death. The countryman was good too, pointing out that landowners in the early 19th century owned not just the land but everything on it - berries, mushrooms, rabbits, even the twigs on the ground. He sounded as if this was not only a grave injustice, but one that still resonates today.

Back to the show, which began with informative sections on Rubens, Claude, Gainsborough, Constable and Turner. There was a lovely part in which Ralph Steadman satirized Rubens' 1620 painting, 'Landscape with St George and the Dragon'; he was one of several contemporary artists featured in the show and in general their views and visions were illuminating.

Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts 1852
After Turner we had William Holman Hunt and an art historian who assured us that Victorians were neither repressed nor uncreative, but that their period represented a British visual Renaissance. It was unfortunate that Hunt's sheep on a coastal hillside came immediately after a succession of glorious, imaginative, uplifting late watercolours by Turner.

As if to confirm the deadly effect of Victorian values and aspirations on our visual culture, the show lost its way at this point. We had Will Self - who has rescued many a documentary - talking about Hampstead Garden Suburb for reasons that aren't immediately clear, and we had Peter York extolling the virtues of the dreadful Atkinson Grimshaw (was this ironic or populist?)... Why include this stuff and not mention Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, or JM Whistler, or... The list is long.

Atkinson Grimshaw, Going Home at Dusk 1882
Hooray for Paul Nash, who came in just before the last to remind us that British landscape painting has a long, venerable and continuing history. With 'Landscape of the Vernal Equinox' and 'The Battle of Britain' (the latter discussed thoughtfully by film-maker Nic Roeg, who also gave some insightful remarks on Constable's work in Brighton), Nash represented single-handedly the tradition of mystical-poetic landscape painting (William Blake, Samuel Palmer and onward to Sutherland, Piper, Ravilious, Inshaw...).

Paul Nash, The Battle of Britain 1941

And then there was David Hockney, who stole the show with his iPhone drawings. You don't need a glass of water, the great man pointed out. There's no mess. You can draw a sunset at 6am and send it to twenty people by 7. You do need an iPhone (other brands also available), but nobody seemed interested in making that point.


  1. Great write up, James. I'll be hunting down that show on iplayer. Thanks!

  2. Hmm. Well, I did watch it. Probably the pictures didn't fare too well on a 13" laptop screen. John Virtue is an interesting chap. Not sure about Simon Callow's fruity narration.

  3. Trying to be positive, Tom! I liked John Virtue too - down to earth and he knew his stuff..