In a major re-calibration of 20th-century British paintings, art historian James Fox argues that British painting from 1910 to 1975 was an extraordinary flowering of genius. He predicts that art historians of the future will rank the period alongside the Golden Ages of Renaissance Italy and Impressionist France.
Drawing upon the work of Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, Stanley Spencer and David Hockney, among others, Fox explores why, during the 20th century, British painters were often dismissed for being old-fashioned. He reveals how these artists carefully reconciled tradition and modernity, providing a unique creative tension that now makes the period seem so exciting.
Over the course of the series, Fox presents his theory that this period of artistic excellence was closely linked to a dramatic shift in Britain's fortunes. He suggests that the demise of the British Empire, as much as the two world wars, defines Britain's unique take on modern art: a determination to rediscover and cling on to "Britishness" while the country's territorial assets and global influence fell away.
The first episode, We Are Making A New World, goes back to the years immediately before and during the First World War, when a radical generation of painters, determined to eject Victorian sentimentality and nostalgia from their art, pioneered a new style of painting that would capture and make sense of the modern experience.
Walter Sickert shocked the public by making the low lives of Camden Town and a brutal murder the subject of his gaze. Wyndham Lewis and David Bomberg broke with centuries of realist tradition, reducing humanity to cold geometric forms. But as the country descended into war, three painters Christopher Nevinson, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer reconciled what was best of the avant-garde with Britain's rich painterly tradition to create powerful images of war that would speak to us all.
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BBC Four, Monday 18th July, 9pm
Episode Two: In Search of England . The inter-war years were a period of alarming national change. With a generation of youth lost to the trenches and the cracks in the Empire growing fast, the nations confidence was in tatters. If we were no longer a mighty Imperial power, what were we? John Nashs mesmerising visions of rural arcadia, Stanley Spencers glimpses of everyday divinity, Alfred Munnings prelapsarian nostalgia, Paul Nashs timeless mysticism, John Pipers crumbling ruins, even William Coldstreams blunt celebration of working-class life all, in their own way, were attempts to answer this question. And, as a reprise of war grew ever more likely, they struggled more urgently than ever to create an image of Britain we could fight for.
BBC Four, Monday 25th July, 9pm
Episode Three: A New Jerusalem. In the decades after the Second World War, at a time when many had lost their faith in humanity, British artists turned to the great figurative painting tradition to address the biggest questions of all: what does it mean to be human and how do we create a more humane world? Such existential angst is captured in Lucien Freuds harrowing early portraits and Graham Sutherlands Pembrokeshire landscapes. Francis Bacon stared deep into his own soul to explore the human capacity for evil, while Richard Hamilton warned against the false hope of consumerism. As national pessimism gave way to a new optimism, David Hockney dared to suggest Paradise might be available to us all. But in the early 1970s, just as the world finally began to recognise the genius of Britains painterly tradition, young artists at home turned against it.