Tuesday, 19 July 2011

James Fox, 'British Masters' & 'Paul Nash in Pictures'

Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham, 1926
After an eye-opening first instalment, art lovers around Britain were keen to see what James Fox would get up to in the second episode of 'British Masters', and he didn't disappointment. Lingering shots of a nude Stanley Spencer (did somebody say 'flaccid'?) were followed by a piece proclaiming the virtues of obnoxious Royal Academy president Sir Alfred Munnings. A deeply unfashionable artist, we were told, and it wasn't hard to see why; it was much more difficult to see why Dr Fox had picked him out for special praise.

Until, that is, we reached the finale of that piece, in which an inebriated Munnings launched a public tirade against modern art in general and Picasso in particular. Not for the only time in the programme, the excellent archive footage and recordings had more allure than the art. 'In Search of England' was the title of a book by bestselling interwar travel writer HV Morton (whose 'In Search of London' is still in print and one of the best books EVER on the city), and in the programme Dr Fox used the documentary-travelogue form to great effect.

Nash and Spencer aside, he mostly avoided the famous names of the period and instead chose artists whose work reflected the concerns and conflicts of the age: Munnings and the 'ordinary' William Coldstream stood on two sides of a divide represented in literature by Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. If this made interesting viewing it didn't necessarily show British art at its best, and Dr Fox will no doubt be lambasted as a reactionary himself - have we had a female artist yet? I don't think so...  However, the day was saved by the in-depth study of Spencer and a fascinating final section on John Piper, whose exquisite painting of Coventry Cathedral, still smouldering after the previous night's bombing, has a genuine, understated greatness.

The film of Piper discussing Gainsborough and Picasso was a curiosity - what a strange old bird he was - and the sequence on the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition was fun too. I loved the old footage of people travelling by bus to Avebury, although I don't remember reading anywhere that Nash discovered the ancient stones by chance, after suffering an asthma attack on a bus. Is this really what happened?
John Piper, Interior of Coventry Cathedral, 15 November 1940

It would be good to know as I've been delving into Nash's life and work this year in preparation for a new book, 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream', which will be published by the Mainstone Press in the autumn. As with the 'Ravilious in Pictures' series, the new book focuses on a selection of twenty-two paintings, each accompanied by a concise essay; we've decided to dedicate the first volume to Nash's oil paintings, which he used to express the ideas that pre-occupied him most. A second volume will focus on his gorgeous watercolours, which were admired greatly during his lifetime but which are now rarely seen in public.

Paul Nash, The Wanderer, 1911

The more I learn about Nash the more fascinating a figure he becomes. Born in 1889 he had the kind of Victorian childhood where Mother was seen for an hour in the evening. He read Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and from them gained a lifelong love of nonsense and wordplay, and though occasionally ill was robust enough to star in his school soccer team. Any sensible career path was cut off for him by his hopeless maths, yet critics later described his paintings as 'mathematical'. He seems to have been motivated by an intense inner vision, but took centre stage in the public debates of the time.

His struggle to reconcile modernity and Britishness was rather like Piper's. Nash tried abstraction, but quickly returned to the painting of natural forms - stones, leaves and trees. Although he greatly admired (and in some cases knew personally) Picasso, Max Ernst, de Chirico, Magritte and other modern artists, he continued to find inspiration in nature and constantly sought subjects in the British landscape that reflected his inner preoccupations; his discovery of Avebury in the summer of 1933 was part of this quest. His frequent journeys to France, including a hilarious jaunt around the Riviera with a young Edward Burra, were also part of the process.
Paul Nash, Equivalents for the Megaliths, 1935
So, another contentious and gripping programme from James Fox comes to an end, and we must wait a whole week for the next. What on earth will he say, I wonder, about post-war painting?


  1. I am really enjoying this series, though it's interesting to see what it left out - and in - as you say. I am so glad to hear that you're bringing out a book about Paul Nash,(though I am largely left cold by his delvings into Surrealism)and would love to see more of his more traditional landscape works such as the Wanderer you've shown here, and which I've never seen. I do much prefer John Nash though. And wasn't it wonderful to see David Inshaw? Far too neglected, in my opinion.

  2. Yes, it was great to see David - it would have been interesting to see his paintings of Silbury Hill in relation to Nash's

  3. It's a wonder Munnings managed to say anything at all after consuming so many units! I felt rather sorry for him, now he will be remembered just for that. Maybe we would have felt the same if we had just encountered the work of Picasso for the first time, I'd like to think not but who knows.

  4. Another good essay here. Episode 2 was another cracker. Not least because the archive was a revelation: the Munnings speech! Piper at the crossroads! Dali mucking about! Superb. I'm also pleased the BBC didn't cowtow to political correctness and call it 'In Search of Britain'. Morton would be proud. On Nash, I have heard before that he was in a bus when he discovered Avebury but can't remember where I saw it.

  5. Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful. Simplistic, distorted, cheap and cynical. Read my reviews at http://richardawarren.wordpress.com/

  6. Anonymous20 July, 2011

    Richard – it sounds like you are suffering from an art historical variant of Mary Whitehouse syndrome! Advice: If you don't enjoy it for the love of Gombrich watch something else... It’s meant to be light entertainment for those of us who don’t know our Stanley from our Frank Spencer. For one, I can't wait to tune in next week! Come on Dr Fox - we want more!

  7. Richard's an angry man isn't he? Quite amazing that a pleasant stroll through interwar art can bring about such spluttering rage. I can only imagine how he would react to issues of real importance, like phone-hacking, illegal wars, or child poverty. I for one agree with Bryan here. Great television all round from British Masters. Richard: if you want some dense and complex academic art history, go to the library!

  8. Thanks for all your comments. Whatever else you might think about 'British Masters', it has certainly got people talking about the subject. I suppose my attitude is that discussion, however flawed, is better than silence.

  9. While I agree (in Richard's post) about the oddness of completely leaving John Nash out of the programme, I might gently suggest that as he is so concerned with getting facts right, he should check his musical ones as well as his artistic ones; it was not Elgar which ended the programme and Dr Fox's summing up, (though that is an obvious conclusion to jump to if you're having a rant). It was the marvellous 'Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis' by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a very appropriate piece to end with.

  10. Me, angry about this? Not really - more sad, shocked, upset. And a quick search will reveal quite a few other blogs and comments with similar views, some much more forcibly expressed. Sheilagh, I have strong feelings about all the issues you mention, but don't see what that has to do with this. Like it or not, much Art is serious stuff and deals with serious issues, requiring not dull pedantry, but at least a regard for accuracy and a respect for the artists involved, both of which Dr Fox seems ready to jettison in his bid for charisma (the BBC's term) and cheekiness (his term). And your invitation to the library cuts both ways; if you want light entertainment, why not leave Art alone and stick with "Strictly"? Next Monday's episode includes the tragic suicide of the painter Keith Vaughan. Let's see how much dignity Fox will afford poor Keith, shall we?

  11. On a lighter note, someone reached this page recently by googling 'James Fox dishy art historian'. Anyone want to own up?!

    1. Me me I did. James Fox is a dishy sexy hunk of man meat!

  12. Another total 'stinker' from Dr. Fox. I teach art history to the public as a mixture of education and entertainment and take pride in my accuracy and contextualisation. Dr. Fox manages to combine inaccuracy, total lack of context and abysmal judgement regarding artistic merit - truly astounding.
    Unlike Richard Warren, I really am angry. Angry that wonderful twentieth-century British art is being crucified by this ignoramus.
    The Wyndham Lewis Society have kindly provided a platform for my full analysis of the first programme entitled 'British Masters below par'. My piece on episode two should also be there shortly. I would welcome feedback:

  13. Peter Farquhar25 July, 2011

    I thought that it was a slendid series. I found it informative and engaging in presentation. James Fox's response to the artists seemed to me to be very positive, showing real empathy. His analysis of individual paintings was clear and convincing and effectively placed within historical context.

  14. Anonymous27 July, 2011

    I have to agree with Richard Warren and Jan Cox. It is irrevelant whether viewers found the presenter 'engaging'.The fact is that large portions of Fox's programme were simply inaccurate. It is not a question of wanting dense and complex academic art history - it is, rather, a question of the truth. Fox resorts to hyperbole at almost every juncture - and frequently patronises his audience. He also contradicts himself: in the first episode he warns us away from the 'bad' painting of Alma-Tadema, only to suggest in the second that Munnings has been sadly neglected on the basis that his horse paintings strike us as 'bad'. This series does more damage than good to modern British art.

  15. I agree with Ruchard and Jan C, My advice to any contemporary artist would be:

    Make sure everyone knows what you mean and why, and if you dont mean anything, say so, to prevent future cleverdicks super-imposing their own hangups on you.