BBC TV’s art historians must operate a rota system. After Andrew Graham-Dixon had done with the Germans (which, following a strong start, rather feebly petered out back in December with our host seemingly lost in a Berlin art commune), and Matthew Collings had completed his rambling and ramshackle “Renaissance Revolution”, along came fresher-faced Alastair Sooke with “Romancing the Stone: the Golden Ages of British Sculpture” on BBC Four. At time of writing only one episode was available to preview, however, by the time you read this the three-part series will have had its first run throughout February. And if the second and third episodes have lived up to the first then it’s something to celebrate (although the title before the colon is dreadful).
Sooke likes setting himself rather grand premises that he then has to justify. On sculpture itself, he declares: “More than any other art form our sculpture reveals how the British have wished to project themselves.” Well, maybe.
And on Wells Cathedral he asserts: “The west front… is the most extraordinary display of sculpture in Britain.” It’s certainly debatable.
But on the testimony of episode one he makes his case with confidence and enthusiasm, backed up with much clearly related evidence, tracing the history of sculpture in the British Isles up to the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe (remembering that Britain was still some centuries short of being a unified nation). It’s a history that almost exclusively concerns the making of objects of religious contemplation by artisans (artists would come later). When Sooke considers the not-entirely-Christian decorated corbels at the Norman church at Kilpeck in Herefordshire, he seems a little agog when describing a Sheela na Gig as having genitalia “almost as big as her head”. Moving on, he plays chess with the curator responsible for the Lewis Chessmen at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, examines the misericords hidden under the royal seats at St George’s chapel at Windsor Castle, and elaborates on the cadaver carving that forms part of the tomb of Alice de la Pole, granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, at Ewelme in Oxfordshire.
However, it is at Wells Cathedral that the writer/presenter and his director make their boldest, and perhaps riskiest move. Sooke reminds us that, as in Rome, the natural colouring of the stone would have been brightly painted to enhance the effect of the religious sculptures that inhabit the façade and the outward-facing hidden galleries would have housed choristers and trumpeters. With this in mind, the cathedral frontage is digitally coloured in, showing us just how different the cathedral would have looked to the medieval processions approaching it on religious festivals. Badly handled, it could have been a tacky mess but, with the appropriate explanatory build-up, the effect is startling and reveals rather than revolts.
Sooke’s colleague (or rival?) Collings did, however, bag the best quote in recent weeks on TV. On “Newsnight” on BBC2, art correspondent Stephen Smith revealed that the late novelist Beryl Bainbridge had had a less well known talent for painting. Smith asked Collings if Bainbridge was a better painter than Tracey Emin is a writer. “She’s a better painter than Tracey Emin is a writer,” replied Collings, adding: “But she’s also a better painter than Tracey Emin is a painter.” Ouch. It’s not that long ago that Collings and Emin were teamed up on the dubious art reality show “School of Saatchi”. Might there have been a falling out? If not, then surely now.
“Newsnight’s” sister programme “The Review Show” also considered sculpture, in particular the Royal Academy’s “Modern British Sculpture” exhibition (until 7 April). The BBC’s website describes the programme as “the place to come for intelligent and challenging conversation”, so one had to feel for Professor John Carey who was left to fulfil the brief almost single-handedly as the other guest reviewers, satirical writer David Quantick, comedian Rhona Cameron and artist Martin Creed contributed almost no insights whatsoever.
Creed was an anti-revelation. When beleaguered presenter Martha Kearney asked: “Martin, you occupy this world. Did the lines of thought seem clear to you?”, he replied: “I try and just look at things and not see lines of thought.” Other Creed observations included: “I don’t really like themes [because] I think everything’s about everything” and “I thought it went from big to small. I liked that. There were some big spooky things in those first four rooms.” In this case, for Creed, it seems the lights were on… Though to be fair perhaps this was Creed’s latest work: minimalist criticism.
If “The Review Show” is in need of new blood, they might do worse than bring in former art forger (and, astonishingly, the writer of Janet Kay’s reggae hit “Silly Games”) John Myatt. In Sky Arts’ series “Fame in the Frame”, Myatt invites a public figure for a sitting and paints them into his copy of a noted work of art. Myatt has only a day to produce the painting so the reproductions fall short of perfect, however, Myatt is an engaging interviewer while he paints his subjects who include Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood inserted into Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and, still to come, the actors Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter as David Hockney’s Mr and Mrs Clark on 8 March and, on 15 March, Stephen Fry as Velasquez’s Pope Innocent X. Myatt and Fry’s informed conversation easily fulfils “The Review Show’s” brief and the programme delivers much more—including chunks of intelligent, if potted, art history—than its premise suggests.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Smart and the stupid'