Reprise: Art and artists on pre-war television

22nd January 2013

In another post from the blog’s archive (previously published on 17 July 2010) I take a look at the visual arts on BBC Television between 1936 and 1939. I was reminded of this because I am teaching again at the Royal College of Art tomorrow – and our main subject is Kenneth Clark, later to be the presenter of Civilisation (1969). But Clark had a significant engagement with television long before that landmark series…

In the second volume of his autobiography The Other Half, published in 1977, Kenneth Clark recalls having taken part in 1937 in ‘the first “art” programme to appear on the new medium’ of television. ‘I was chairman of a panel in which four artists tried to guess who wrote certain lines of poetry,’ he writes, ‘and four poets guessed, from details, who painted certain pictures. The poets won. I suppose about 500 people saw it.’ I am as guilty as others in using this quote to suggest (in my book Vision On: Film, Television and the Arts in Britain) that pre-war television was pretty much a visual arts wasteland. My recent burrowing in the online Radio Times listings shows me just how wrong I was — and indeed that K was mistaken too. The programme he describes wasn’t transmitted in 1937 and it most certainly wasn’t the first television ‘art’ programme.

The show that Kenneth Clark recalls was Sight and Sound, a half-hour quiz transmitted on Sunday 26 February 1939. This is the Radio Times billing:

Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, will act as Master of the Ceremonies in a test of skill. Painters will face poets ; the artists will be asked to spot quotations and the poets will be shown well-known pictures and asked their authorship. Presentation by Mary Adams.

Not only is this not the first television “art” programme but it’s also not the first such in which Clark himself appeared — at least if the show scheduled for the evening of Friday 10 December 1937 went ahead. As part of a short series titled Artists and their Work, the youthful Director of the National Gallery (he was 34 at the time) described Florentine paintings at the gallery. Not that this would have been broadcast from the Trafalgar Square building; rather Clark would have spoken live in the Alexandra Palace studio pointing at black and white photographic reproductions.

The two other shows in the 1937 Artists and their Work series featured, first, artist and critic Robert Gibbings speaking about the woodcuts of the convict artist John Graham in the early days of the Australian settlement, and then the distinguished critic R H Wilenski introducing a show featuring ‘three artists and a bowl of fruit’. Iain MacNabJohn Skeaping and Amedee Ozenfant were the artists, and presumably they sketched the aforesaid bowl, although the Radio Times offers no further clues.

The sculptor John Skeaping, by this point the former husband of Barbara Hepworth, seems to have been a particular favourite of producer Mary Adams who was responsible for the majority of studio shows with artists. In February 1938 Skeaping spoke about the art classes he gave at London Zoo, and showed how to sketch a cheetah who (with the zoo’s ‘assistant curator’ Alan Best) was brought into the studio. Early the following year, on Tuesday 7 February, Skeaping presented Animals, Anatomy, Artists when ‘with the aid of pictures, films and living animals, [he] shows how artists from the cave man to Walt Disney have interpreted animal anatomy.’ This seems to have gone done sufficiently well for a similar programme to be presented the following month.

Which other artists of the 1930s made their way up to Alexandra Palace to appear before the cameras? The fine painter Laura Knight was one when she featured in the series The World of Women on Monday 8 February 1937. Her talk was apparently illustrated with several of her pictures, including The Ballet, which she is seen working on in the Radio Times picture above. Knight’s work, and perhaps she herself (although this isn’t clear from the listing) was also part of a debate on Tuesday 23 May 1939 with the title of Modern Art:

A debate with Sir William Rothenstein in the chair. Examples of the work of Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Paul Nash, McKnight Kauffer, Klee, Dali, and Wadsworth will be shown and compared with pictures painted by Laura Knight, Russell Flint, Lamorna Birch, Frank Brangwyn, Burne-Jones, Tadema, and Watts, and distinguished artists and critics in the studio will put forward arguments for and against them. Presentation by Mary Adams.

Another elaborate arts programme in 1939 was an outside broadcast from Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy on the afternoon of 24 April. This is how Radio Times anticipated the broadcast, which included a very early employment of sound film:

A visit with Edward Halliday to the galleries at Burlington House to see some of the exhibitors putting final touches to their pictures and sculpture. For the first time in the history of the Royal Academy the galleries at Burlington House will be open on the famous Non-Members’ Varnishing Day—but to fortunate viewers only. The proceedings on this hitherto secret occasion will be televised direct from the Academy, and preceded by a special film made outside Burlington House on Sending-In Day.

John Constable was one of the few long-dead artists to be the subject of a programme. In April 1937, the one hundredth anniversary of his death was marked by an illustrated talk from Sir Evan Charteris. The living landscape artist Paul Nash featured on several occasions, providing in the same month as the Constable the commentary to a programme about the New Yorker drawings of James Thurber and in January 1938 giving an interpretation of surrealist ‘by means of exhibits from England and abroad’.

One of the more remarkable guests persuaded into the studio by producer Mary Adams was the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. On Wednesday 10 May 1939 he discussed his work in front of the cameras, with illustrations from films and models. Contemporary architecture was a topic of quite a few programmes, particularly in television’s first year, although its attraction seems to have diminished a little in 1938 and ’39.

On Wednesday 3 March 1937 Frank Pick and Oliver Hill discussed the latter’s design for the British Pavilion at the forthcoming International Exposition in Paris. A month later E Maxwell Fry interviewed Walter Gropius, who was en route (it took three years) from the Bauhaus and the Nazis to Harvard University. The broadcast was accompanied by a lavishly illustrated two-page feature in Radio Times.

Architect Serge Chermayeff, co-creator of the then-new Bexhill Pavilion, presented a talk on 8 April titled Building a New England, and a fortnight later Patrick Abercrombie was scheduled to discuss planning in architecture (this was postponed, but re-scheduled six weeks later). In January 1938 criticJohn Summerson spoke about models from the Mars (Modern Architectural Research) Group and the following year architect Berthold Lubetkin presented his ‘Finsbury Plan’ for air raid precautions. Reading the billings in these years, you get a real sense that the television service was concerned to give airtime to the major figures of architectural modernism.

If we count Chermayeff as an artist, then there’s a good case to be made for him as the first such to appear on British television, since just a month after the opening of the regular service from Alexandra Palace he was part of a discussion about ‘The Modern House’. Other candidates include John Piper who is preserved presenting a studio item in the BBC Television Demonstration film which may or may not (I’m trying to work this out) have been transmitted from the start of broadcasts — or even before — in November 1936. Piper in this precious fragment looks distinctly uneasy, as he introduces a Constable and a Picasso (real or repro?) and a small sculpture by Henry Moore.

John Piper, however, blossomed into the Georgian television (see here) version of Andrew Graham-Dixon, for he presented several programmes of work from London galleries, including one in March 1937 with ‘a group of young artists, mostly students at London art schools’. Who might the privileged have been, one wonders? Piper and his wife Myfanwy also produced a short feature item for mary Adams on Friday 10 June 1938 with the title A Trip to the Seaside.

And there’s one other artist featured early on, who was almost certainly the first to be seen on British television with examples of his own creations. The cartoonist Bert Thomas, famous then for his wartime Cockney drawing ‘Arf a Mo, Kaiser! as well as for sketches in Punch, was seen at work on Tuesday 29 December 1936. A modest start, perhaps, to the BBC’s rich tradition of arts programmes, but interestingly one grounded in a popular form rather than associated with the values of K and his cohorts.

Related posts

• Television theatre before the war 3. by John Wyver, 11 July 2010: television productions between 1936 and ’39 of plays by Coward, O’Neill, Bridie, O’casey and Yeats.

• Television theatre before the war 2. by John Wyver, 3 July 2010: pre-war television productions of the plays of George Bernard Shaw and J B Priestley.

• Television theatre before the war 1. by John Wyver, 25 June 2010: which great playwrights were performed on BBC TV between 1936 and 1939?

• TV Shakespeare: the early years by John Wyver, 19 June 2010: the earliest television productions of the Bard.

• Daily times… are Radio Times by John Wyver, 3 March 2010: the joys of the online pre-war Radio Times listings.

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