Fox among the paintings

Daisy Jones takes aim at BBC4’s quixotic attempt to wrap modernist art in a union jack

November 29, 2011
5 min read

Close up: three union jacks wave vigorously in the blustery British winds. Traditional classical music chimes, staccato beat travelling across the air as your brain tries to align the rhythm of the music to the images of the flags. A voice rings out in an urgent tone, primed with dramatic pause and rhetorical flourishes.

The originality of approach in the BBC series on British modernism, British Masters, is obvious from the opening scene. If television documentaries are sometimes criticised for refusing to risk alienating their audiences by taking a controversial stance, British Masters staunchly refuses to play to the crowd. Because impressionism, cubism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism are now conventionally popular and often featured on television, they are either sidelined or dismissed in favour of a very British tradition.

Indeed, if you watched the series, you would know we Brits have a lot to wave our union jacks about in terms of our national artistic legacy – ‘one of the greatest artistic movements in all of western culture,’ according to presenter Dr James Fox. Almost every painting the series looks at is ‘the work of a genius’, or ‘probably one of the greatest ever’. Excitingly, this very British art is not only of the finest aesthetic quality but also has a profound social value. Before the second world war it prophesised what was to come; afterwards it demonstrated what it was to be ‘British’.

Miraculously, Fox sees no disjunction between his revisionist mission to reclaim British modernism from its undeserving omission from our museums, television programmes and art history books on the one hand and the power of the claims he makes about it on the other. British modernist art was always undervalued, yet simultaneously influential enough to ‘define for a nation what Britishness was’ (the concept of what British identity and nationality is or was or means is never problematised in the programme itself).

Some of the artists in the programme – Sickert, Hamilton, and Hockney for example – are extremely famous in Britain today, but not as part of a very British lineage. Fox’s refusal to acknowledge David Blomberg’s debt to cubism, Sickert’s debt to Degas, or Hamilton and Hockney’s debt to Warhol and US pop art is symptomatic of the presenter’s unfortunate predilection for following his own agenda with, at times, little regard for the facts.

As John Preston from the Telegraph aptly points out, when Fox discusses Mark Gertler’s ‘The Merry-Go-Round’: ‘[He] gave the clear impression that this was painted in 1914 and was “a dark and brutal vision of the future, a premonition of Britain trapped in the insanity of a never-ending war”. But “The Merry-Go-Round”, as Fox must – or should – have been aware, was actually painted in 1916.’

Good visual analysis is marred by Fox’s compulsive exaggeration. In a scene showing shots of Stanley Spencer’s incredible Sandham memorial paintings, painted hands become a ‘handshake between the past and the future’.

The striking subjectivity of these analyses is accounted for by Fox’s own motivations for making the programme: ‘A few years ago I was at a conference on 20th century painting. As I queued up for a coffee in the canteen I overheard a French historian describe Britain as “the land without modern art”. His friends all laughed in agreement. I was livid. And ever since I’ve been determined to prove them wrong.’

Personal vendetta is supplemented by cliché and stereotypes. Brits love an underdog, which is why we also love British modernism. British art is tasteful and ‘understated’ – like us Brits. It’s figurative and painterly too: well-made and dependable, like a good piece of British manufacturing. Like the ‘golden age’ of the British empire, for Fox modernism was a unique chapter in British art, after which standards have seriously slipped.

Contemporary art is narrowly defined as the populist stuff of the YBAs (Young British Artists) Hirst and Emin, and dismissed for valuing celebrity and concepts above craftsmanship. Foreigners are inferior, women artists non-existent and all mediums bar painting obsolete. The internationality of the art world and the great work in photography, video and net art, much of which is highly valued outside the realms of the cynical art market, are invisible to Fox.

Dramatic in tone, music and visually (in one scene Fox presents the programme clad only in a towel!), British Masters is the opposite of the qualities he claims to admire so much. It’s brash, overstated, undignified and its argument in bad taste. Rather than genuinely championing a repressed branch of history, the series is the epitome of television as populist medium par excellence.

Popular opinion is attacked in a hyperbolically personal style instead of well-considered argument and evidence. The central thesis of British Masters becomes a populist argument against populism – and if you believe in the power of television to form as well as reflect popular opinion, it is one based on worryingly reactionary and conservative principles.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace


2