Looking at ‘The Artist’s Eye’

20th March 2020

John Wyver writes: researching yesterday’s post piqued my curiosity about the early BBC television arts strand The Artist’s Eye, which ran from 1947 to 1949. Although the standard histories of arts television credit Monitor, which started in 1958, as the first arts series on British television, even on just the basis of Radio Times listings, a strong case can be made for that accolade belonging to The Artist’s Eye. The monthly programmes, each lasting between 30 and 45 minutes, were produced in the studio by the remarkable Mary Adams, who during the run of the series was promoted to be head of television talks. The strand title was also used, as I outline below, for a small number of acquired film documentaries about artists. For much of the information, thanks, as always and forever, to BBC Genome.

In the first programme, Three Artists (7 October 1947) sculptor and painter of horses John Skeaping, the German poster and exhibition designer F. H. K. Henrion (who had been interned on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien), and the Australian painter Molly Paxton were asked to give their own interpretations of a subject set for them in the studio. The critic R. H. Wilenski, a celebrated populariser of modern art, talked with the artists as they worked.

At this point, sixteen months after the television service resumed operations, almost all of the programming was broadcast live from two small studios at Alexandra Palace. So producers like Mary Adams had to be endlessly imaginative about the ways in which the multi-camera studio could be utilised to explore a wide range of topics. As Kate Murphy has wonderfully detailed, Adams had joined in 1930 the BBC as adult education officer for the Home Counties:

Her appointment reflected the modernity of the Corporation. Not only was it unusual to recruit older women, 30 was then considered middle-aged, but she was married; her husband of five years was the maverick Conservative MP Vyvyan Adams.  At a time when many professions, such as teaching, banking and the Civil Service, enforced marriage bars, the BBC openly employed married women. 

After the birth of a child in late 1936, Mary Adams returned to the BBC to work for the new television service overseeing talks for the new medium. ‘As a producer of radio talks,’ Murphy wrote, ‘Adams’ focus had predominantly been social affairs or science. In television, she learnt quickly that television talks worked best with a visual element.’ Which is exactly what she seems to have brought to The Artist’s Eye, including for the second broadcast Cleaning the Nation’s Pictures (4 November 1947). As I noted yesterday, director of the National Gallery Philip Hendy and a phalanx of his staff came to Alexandra Palace to demonstrate how pictures were examined and cleaned. F.H.K. Henrion returned to the show to demonstrate X-ray, ultra-violet, and other scientific tests.

Films on art

The Art of Matisse (28 November 1947) was the first acquired film documentary to be broadcast using the series title. Geoffrey Grigson introduced François Campaux’s 26-minute study commissioned by the French Department of Cultural Relations and recently exhibited at the Edinburgh Festival. Here’s a brief extract with Matisse speaking (in French of course):

Other films shown as part of The Artist’s Eye were a documentary about Rodin (2 January 1948), which I haven’t yet been able to identify although we know that Herbert Read contributed to the English commentary, and Jean Lods’ film study Maillol (19 March 1948), shot during the Nazi occupation of France but not released until after the sculptor’s death in 1944. This was accompanied by a new appreciation of Maillol’s work by sculptor Frank Dobson and the translated commentary was spoken by Michel St. Denis. Again, here’s an extract (the full film can be found here):

On 17 January 1949 The Artist’s Eye presented the British premiere of Alain Resnais’ celebrated documentary Vincent Van Gogh, which had won the Grand Prix d’Art at Venice and the Swiss Grand Prix for 1948, and would go on to win the Best Short Film Oscar in 1950. There’s a good appreciation of it here by James Travers. And the final programme in the series, on 11 April 1949, was a double-bill of Altar Pieces, a German film about the Hans Brueggemann’s carvings for the Great Altar in Schleswig Cathedral (which I can’t identify), and the intriguing item Roof Bosses with the architectural historian Charles John Philip Cave describing these features of churches and cathedral. Cave, who died in 1950, had just published a major study of bosses with Cambridge University Press which was illustrated by his own ‘telephotographs’, and these were used for the programme.

Art from other cultures

One of the remarkable aspects of The Artist’s Eye is the breadth of its interests – this was not simply a series about the established masterpieces of the Western canon. Painting a Chinese Picture (2 December 1947) brought into the studio four Chinese artists, Mr. A. C. Chang, Miss C. Y. Chang, Mr. C. W. Fei and Mr. S. H. Chen. As Radio Times anticipated, ‘Their technique and aesthetic will be described by Mr. C. M. Dowse as they paint, and the signatures and seals at the end will illustrate the tradition of harmony which is the basis of Chinese art.’ At the time Chien-Ying Chang, who had come to London in 1946, was studying at the Slade on a British Council grant. Following the communist revolution, she made her home in Britain where she lived until her death in 2004. C.W. Fei is surely Cheng-Wu Fei, Chang’s husband, also a painter but better-known as an academic.

A month after the series’ engagement with Chinese painting, Indian Art (6 January 1948) took its cue from he Royal Academy’s exhibition of art from India and Pakistan, about to experience the trauma of Partition and Independence. Making the best use of the television studio, the programme demonstrated relationships between Indian sculpture, dance and music. Those taking part, Radio Times informed readers, included ‘Mr. Ram Gopal, India’s leading dancer, and members of his company’ with musical arrangements by Mrs. Dipali Nag. The modernist dancer and choreographer Ram Gopal (1912-2003) is a fascinating figure, and it’s well worth reading the linked Wikipedia entry. Ditto Dipali Nag (1922-2009) and her biographical outline from ITC Sangeeet Research Academy (with added audio).

One month further on, African Art (3 February 1948) examined, in Radio Times‘ words, ‘the ancient tradition of African art, and the effect which Western culture has had on its development.’ In addition to including traditional dancing, the programme also featured the Nigerian sculptor Ben Enwonwu demonstrating carving techniques, which makes it a remarkable early appearance of the figure that Wikipedia currently claims to be ‘arguably the most influential African artist of the 20th century’.

Exploring the canon

from Radio Times, 19 March 1948

The Artist’s Eye did not, however, neglect the traditional canon of Western art, and for Easter in 1948, The Life of Christ (22 March) considered the relationship of art to religion through the eyes of medieval and modern artists and craftsmen. The Venerable O.H. Gibbs Smith, Archdeacon of London chaired a discussion with the Rev. W. Hussey, Vicar of St. Matthew’s, Northampton, H.D. Molesworth, Keeper of Sculptures at the Victoria and Albert Museum; the artist Mary Kessel and poet Basil Taylor. Religious music was sung by the Choir of St. Matthew’s, Northampton, led by Alec Whyton.

The Pre-Raphaelites 1848-1948 (14 October 1948) looked at exhibitions in Birmingham, Whitechapel and at the Tate Gallery, and The English Landscape (14 March 1949) offered an anthology of pictures illustrating the painter’s vision of nature. The script for this was written and spoken by the returning Basil Taylor, who we learn from a blog post by Charles Saumarez Smith had been studying at the Slade, and who in 1953 would be appointed librarian at the Royal College of Art.

Arts in post-war Britain

The Artist’s Eye also included a broad range of programmes that explored different aspects of the visual arts in Britain in the late 1940s. In Looking at Westminster (2 March 1948) viewers were ‘invited to consider a plan for redesigning the Westminster Precinct, in which the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and other notable buildings could be isolated from traffic congestion and thus gain quietness and beauty.’ In a rather different vein Art in the Pub (20 April 1948) featured Edward Ardizzone, John Farleigh, and other artists talking with M. L. Anderson, organiser of the ‘Inn Crafts Exhibition’ [opening in a week at the R.B.A. Galleries] about ‘the business of bringing artists into contact with the affairs of everyday life’. And for The Modern Patron (14 June 1948) Ardizzone returned to talk about what support industry and commerce could give to art with patron: Jack Beddington and designer James Gardner.

Life Class (18 May 1948) was a programme conceived to introduce viewers to the practice of drawing from life. The painter Henry Carr led a class of students from the Chelsea School of Art together with, as the delightful header image shows, a decorously clad model. Later in the year, with the series now being produced by Wayland Dobson, Humour in Art (24 November 1948) imported three notable cartoonists, as the Radio Times image below indicates. Slightly bizarrely, the subject they were asked to respond to was ‘British Railways’, following rail nationalisation which had come into effect at the start of the year.

from Radio Times, 19 November 1948

Nor were traditional crafts neglected by the series. Pottery and Porcelain (12 July 1948) featured W.B. Honey, who was about to retire as keeper of the V&A’s department of ceramics, showing ‘examples of pottery from many countries and centuries’. He was in discussion with Anne Allbrook, who had collaborated with Honey on a notable exhibition, ‘The English Ceramic Circle, 1927-1948 – English Pottery and Porcelain’, which had closed at the V&A the previous month. Also featured in the programme were sequences with the influential teacher Dora Billington demonstrating the potter’s wheel.

from Radio Times, 9 July 1948

The same summer as the programme about pottery and porcelain saw the broadcast of Fantastic Art (16 August 1948), which has a Radio Times billing that is far more tantalising than it is informative: ‘A programme designed to show some of the extravagances of which art is capable. Viewers are introduced to surrealism by way of a Cubist film, an artist’s demonstration, and a modern shop window.’ And finally, towards the end of the series The Chantrey Bequest (14 February 1949) considered the Chantrey Collection, purchases of British art made for the Tate Gallery but then on exhibition at the Royal Academy at Burlington House. Art historian Francis Watson provided the script, and this was once again a studio programme featuring reproductions.

Of course we have no recordings of any of the 16 studio programmes in The Artist’s Eye series, which in large part accounts for the fact that to date it simply has not featured in the literature about the arts on British television. Yet for a host of reasons, and not least for the appearances of Ram Gopal and Ben Enwonwu, it really deserves to. I’ve done a first search for any newspaper reviews that might give us a better sense of the programmes and their contents, but have so far drawn a blank. I want to continue that search, however, and also to seek out anything further I can find about what was clearly one of Mary Adams’s pioneering projects.


  1. David Button says:

    Re: Fantastic Art episode. Amy Hale in her book “Ithell Colquhoun – Genius of Fern Loved Gully” discusses on pg 90 Ithell and Eileen Agar demonstrating surrealist automatic art techniques. A rare mainstream appearance for female surrealists.

  2. J. says:

    Hi! I would love to know who the people in the photo are. Thank you.

  3. J. says:

    P.S. In the first photo! Life model class.

  4. Katy Norris says:

    Hello, I wondered if anybody had found original footage of the ‘Fantastic Art’ Episode featuring Ithell Colquhoun.

    • John Wyver says:

      Hi Katy,
      I hope you got my email response with more details about why the footage does not exist.
      Best wishes,

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