Monday, 5 December 2011

BBC4: The Art of America

Flying fish illustrated by John White, 1580s (British Museum)
Having successfully missed the whole of the recent BBC4 series 'Art of America', I've been catching up on the iplayer (without which I'd probably never see anything). As I write this you have about nine hours in which to watch the first episode, and I would strongly recommend dropping everything and putting it on right now...

Critics have already made the point, but Andrew Graham Dixon is that great rarity: an art historian who makes wonderful TV programmes in which he displays both passion and balance. He is articulate and neither glib nor condescending. Yes, he can be a bit serious (as he was when talking about the delightfully flippant and unserious Edward Burra) but he demonstrates clearly and with a minimum of posturing that Art Matters.

So far I've managed to watch the first two parts of 'Art of America', and the opening programme is a gem. In fact the opening of the opening programme is fantastic in its own right, as AGD introduces artist and map-maker John White, who travelled with a pioneering expedition to (what is now) North Carolina in 1585 and later became governor of the ill-fated colony of Roanoke Island; on the first expedition he painted watercolours of the Native American people they met, and these survive today as a unique record of a long-vanished society.

John White, A Cheife Herowan's Wyfe, 1580s (BM)
If there are two broad views of American history - the March of Progress vs the Devastation of a Continent - then it is clear which side this presenter takes. Believers in Manifest Destiny may prefer to watch with the sound off, but you can't really argue with the fact that North America changed dramatically in the centuries after Columbus, and not to the benefit of all. Those who know American history will not be surprised by much, although the archive film and photography is as excellent as it always seems to be in these BBC4 shows.

Audubon's Wild Turkey from 'Birds of America', 1827-38
At some points the art seems slightly unworthy of the colossal historical drama unfolding across the continent. The Americans had no Delacroix. But there are one or two moments of breathtaking beauty and of these surely the most memorable was when AGD helped a wonderful grey-haired archivist to lift the cover of John James Audubon's 'Birds of America'. I'm not sure how well people know this extraordinary book of bird paintings here in Britain, but in the USA you can find it all over the place, in numerous editions and on legions of prints and posters.

Audubon's Carolina Parakeet, now extinct
None of them, though, comes anywhere near this mighty 19th century edition - the double elephant folio. As a book it is almost preposterous, a volume so enormous that two people struggle to lift the cover... but those pictures: from the wild turkey on the first page (the original bird of America remembered every year at Thanksgiving) Audubon's birds live in a way that no stuffed bird in a box ever can. We learned that the third bird we saw - a parakeet - was driven to extinction by the farmer and the gun, prompting a discussion of 'the murderous white man' and his malign impact on natural America.

Fascinating stuff. I wonder what American viewers will make of this show if it appears on the other side of the Atlantic...


  1. I am enjoying "Art of America" too, although I have not seen the "Birds of America" one yet. There are several copies here in the UK, I am sure there is one in Liverpool. As a textile design student we knew it for its influence on textile design. You may be surprised to know that books of that size and quality are still being produced today here in Britain. I recently saw the The Highgrove Florilegium being bound in Halifax.

  2. Thanks Valerie, I knew there was a lot of high quality small press book production going on, but double elephant folio?! Those books are so big they almost stop functioning as books. I'm sure the binding of the Highgrove Florilegium was a wonder to behold - did you take any pictures?

  3. No I did not take pictures but believe me these volumes are huge! Maybe not as big as double elephant but certainly huge. You could not lift one easily. They are quite remarkable, honestly!
    You can find it here