Virtual gallery-going via the BBC

19th March 2020

John Wyver writes: having looked at two early films from New York’s Metropolitan Museum, here and here, and before I return to the topic of museums and media in the United States, I thought I would explore how galleries and museums in Britain started to collaborate with the BBC, initially on radio and then, as early as November 1936, on television too. I’ve already noted that I don’t think there are any films made by a museum or gallery on this side of the Atlantic before the Second World War, but both in the interwar years and just post-war there was certainly plenty of virtual gallery-going over the airwaves.

This feels especially relevant since yesterday the BBC announced the following (which of course is exactly what underpins its legitimacy as a licence-fee funded public service broadcaster):

At a time when British culture is having to close its doors, the BBC, through iPlayer and Sounds, can give British culture an audience that can’t be there in person. We propose to run an essential arts and culture service – Culture in Quarantine – that will keep the Arts alive in people’s homes, focused most intensely across Radio 3, Radio 4, BBC Two, BBC Four, Sounds, iPlayer and our digital platforms, working closely with organisations like Arts Council England and other national funding and producing bodies. This will include guides to shuttered exhibitions…

The first BBC radio broadcast I can identify via the ever-wonderful BBC Genome that was associated with one of the nation’s major museums or galleries was a talk titled Modern Painting. This was given on 11 October 1923 by E. Fagg, who was billed as ‘principal lecturer to the Tate Gallery’. Seemingly nothing is known about the content of Edwin Fagg’s lecture, but this bare listing sent me down a research rabbit-hole which took me first to ‘Archiving the Uncollectable: Museum Education and Memory Loss‘, a 2015 research paper by Sara Torres Vega about the history of Tate education; from which we learn

[In] 1920 (the gallery was closed from 1915-1920)… Edwin Fagg was appointed as Official Guide. We know that some educational events took place from this moment to 1950 because they were mentioned in the Board of Trustees’ minutes. ln 1923, we know that the Secretary of Evening Lectures Association applied for permission for lecture parties of about 30 students to be conducted by the Official Guide in the Gallery from 6-8pm (an early version of Late at Tate).

Edwin Fagg’s 1945 obituary in The Times details that in fact he had been a lecturer at the Tate Gallery since 1914, although he was also an expert on nineteenth-century theatre who wrote and produced two comic operas in Bath. Then, ‘when the Thames flooded over Millbank Embankment in 1928 he did valuable work in rescuing Turner paintings and sketches.’ The obit, however, makes no mention of his pioneering work in taking modern art to those listening-in in 1923.

The radio service brought numerous experts from the national cultural institutions to the airwaves, and very soon after Mr Fagg’s contribution there were talks by curators and keepers from the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and even the Art Gallery, Aberdeen. By the summer of 1925 Isaac Williams, Keeper of Art, National Museum of Wales, was giving a series of fairly specialist talks on ‘English Water Colour (sic) Painters’ including David Cox, David Roberts and William Muller of Bristol.

Once the BBC started its official television service from Alexandra Palace (AP) in November 1936, amongst the very earliest transmissions was the first in the regular series Round the Galleries. Painter John Piper spoke from the studio about canvases and sculptures on show in the commercial galleries of London – and the artworks themselves were brought to AP for display, as can be seen from the Gainsborough, Moore and Picasso in the brief film clip showing one of the transmissions in the post-war documentary Television is Here Again (header image).

Most of the pre-war television broadcasts were talks from the AP studios using photographic reproductions of artworks, as was the case with the NPG’s John Steegemann’s talk Family Likenesses in a Royal Line (5 November 1937) and the presentation by Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, on Florentine paintings from his collection (17 December 1937).

The only occasion before the war when outside broadcast cameras took the viewer for a spot of virtual gallery-going was on the afternoon of 24 April 1939. A direct broadcast from the Royal Academy’s Burlington House, hosted by the posh portraitist Edward Halliday, gave a glimpse of activity on ‘Non-members’ Varnishing Day’. Radio Times (from which the image above comes) promised that lookers-in on ‘this hitherto secret occasion’ would ‘see some of the exhibitors putting final touches to their pictures and sculpture’. (No recording exists of this, or indeed of any other full pre-war programme.)

Once the television service returned after the war, it was some years before the cameras ventured out to another gallery or museum. Illustrated talks about the visual arts started up again, including in a broadcast just a fortnight after the service resumed (and the day before live coverage of the first post-war Test match between England and India). In American Painting (21 June 1946) John Walker, chief curator of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and John Rothenstein, director of the Tate Gallery, discussed some of the American pictures that were then on show at the Tate Gallery. Tate Research incidentally has a full and fascinating essay about the exhibition by Caroline M. Riley. As she writes, this

positioned American painting as a form of mutual cultural recovery for the two nations, while also subtly promoting the United States’ growing cultural authority in relation to war-shattered Britain.

One of the most ambitious studio productions associated with a major gallery was featured in the series The Eye of the Artist (which deserves further exploration and its own post). Shown occasionally between October 1947 and March 1949, this is a little-known arts strand that featured both live broadcasts and purchased films. On 4 November 1947, in a transmission titled Cleaning the Nation’s Pictures, National Gallery director Philip Hendy came along with colleagues to

show the way in which the pictures have been examined and cleaned, and hung on the walls of the Gallery for the present exhibition. Mr. F.H.K. Henrion, an interested observer, conducts the viewer through the various stages of X-ray, ultra-violet, and other scientific tests, which are preliminary to the actual business of cleaning and re-varnishing.
The Gallery staff taking part include Mr. C. Gould, Mrs. V. Wilson, Mr. H. Ruehmann, and Mr. A. Lucas.

The first post-war OB from a museum or gallery was the opener of four monthly visits to the galleries of the British Museum, screened as Private View (from 30 January 1950). The host, who can be seen below in a photograph published for the second programme, was the Irish artist and author Robert Gibbings, especially noted for his work as a wood engraver. The third programme looked at the Sutton Hoo burial treasures.

Later in 1950, for Museum Visit: Progress of Flight (27 September) OB cameras visited the recently opened galleries of the Science Museum displaying the National Aeronautical Collection. At the start of a distinguished broadcasting career, Raymond Baxter was the host. The Tate Gallery first hosted BBC cameras in December 1952 when director John Rothenstein gave an introduction before handing over for a tour with art historian Basil Taylor (the link is to a short, charming blog post by Charles Saumarez Smith). And in March 1953 the cameras were back at the Royal Academy for a special visit to the exhibition ‘Kings and Queens of England’.

One last broadcast series that especially intrigues me is the four-part Down the Centuries in early 1951, which featured visits to the galleries of the V&A. Made to tie in explicitly with the upcoming Festival of Britain, this was conceived as a celebration of all that was best in British visual culture. Effortlessly revealing a shared culture of privilege, critic Reginald Pound reflected on the series for The Listener:

The antiquarian series called Down the Centuries, moving gracefully through various ages of taste and fashion, possibly ties to do too much in the time and space at its disposal, with the result that it leaves us somehow unsatisfied. Some may think it does too little. The Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington is the venue. Sir Leigh Ashton, the director there, is our guide. This ought, then, to be one of television’s tip-top instructional programmes.

It very nearly is, only the guide seems to have decided that we are not really interested in the treasures he has to show us, too seldom drawing on his connoisseurship and those gifts of expression so engaging to those who have opportunities of enjoying his company in private. Sir Leigh should take charge of the programme. Up till now it has taken charge of him.

Plus ça change?

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