A Very British Renaissance: a few random thoughts plus a half-hearted attack on a journalist

Dr James Fox, the Cambridge art historian and occasional broadcaster, is back on our screens with a documentary series for BBC2 called A Very British Renaissance (the series he gave up his summer holidays to film last year). The first part, “The Renaissance Arrives“, was screened last night.  As a couple of my previous blog posts have made clear, I think James Fox is absolutely lovely, and the fact that he’s also a natural communicator, as well as a skilful advocate for British art, makes him a precious, precious thing, so please bear that in mind if you choose to keep reading, because this isn’t going to be an unbiased review.

I was going to watch last night’s programme at least twice before commenting on it, but I got a Google alert this afternoon directing me to an online review of it by Jake Wallis Simons in the Telegraph, and because the review pissed me off a bit, I thought I’d just go ahead and put down a few thoughts while they were fresh in my mind.  Simons has previously written for the Telegraph about learning to be a trapeze artist, how ridiculous Daniel Radcliffe looks with long hair, and the ignominy of men being forced to piss sitting down, so he must have jumped at the opportunity to prove that he was capable of more by writing about something “highbrow”.

Simons’ first complaint is that JF “assumed that the audience would be equally ignorant of the whole kit and kaboodle” of the British Renaissance. He then helpfully runs through a list of the famous names of the period with whom he says the average viewer is already familiar: Donne, Bacon, Marlowe, More, Jonson, Spencer, Dowland, Shakespeare, Thomas Morley, and Thomas Tallis. “Dr Fox chose to cast us as non-believers, and gave himself a mission to convince us that yes, the renaissance really did happen,” he scoffed.

That wasn’t JF’s approach at all, so I don’t know why he was acting as if he was being patronised. What makes his complaint even more perplexing is that with the exception of Thomas Tallis, last night’s programme didn’t cover any of the people on Simons’ list of notables, so it was daft to criticise JF for condescending to his audience by presenting these giants of British culture as if no-one had never heard of them.

Blimey. I can only imagine the number of student crushes he must have to negotiate.

In fact, JF only discussed one of them: Thomas Tallis (of which more later).  Instead, we were introduced to Pietro Torrigiano (whose tomb of Henry VII was introduced with the Rose Adagio, bizarrely), Hans Holbein (via his preparatory drawings and his painting “The Ambassadors”), Nicolas Kratzer (Henry VIII’s clockmaker), John Damian (a bit of a random one, maybe), Thomas Wyatt (in a segment on the introduction of the sonnet form to English poetry), John Bettes (JF says his portrait of an unknown man was “the beginning of a home grown Renaissance in English painting”), John Foxe (whose Book of Martyrs was essential reading for me when I was a bloodthirsty teenager; JF uses it to explain the growth and political importance of printing), and John Thynne (exemplifying our rather eclectic approach to introducing Renaissance forms into architecture, via his designs for Longleat House).

Maybe Spencer, More, Dowland and the rest will turn up next week, but since his review was of last night’s prog, I can only assume Simons wasn’t really paying attention.

Simons’ criticism that JF was telling us stuff we already know would also have been more convincing if he hadn’t been so keen to impress us with his ability to Google the words “British Renaissance” recall the reading list from the second year of his English lit degree. In my first draft of this blog post, I countered with some showing-off of my own, but I feel self-conscious about it now, so let’s just say that even though I’m pretty familiar with the work of all of the people Simons mentions, as well as many more that he doesn’t, I didn’t feel patronised by the programme.  In my experience, most people only have a sketchy idea of what the “British Renaissance” was, and that doesn’t make them stupid, or me brainy – it’s just an indication of personal interests and educational background.   JF was quite right not to assume anything about his viewers’ knowledge about the subject.  He’s making a TV programme for the general public, not giving a research paper, for god’s sake.

Anyway, enough of Simons’ attempts to line himself up for an arts editor job: let’s look at the programme itself.


Andrew Collins in the Guardian once likened JF’s style to that of “‘Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (Telly Addict, from 4:33), and JF gave us his very own homage to Subterranean Homesick Blues when he led us through the gorgeous opening to possibly the most famous motet in English Renaissance polyphony, Tallis’ Spem in Alium.  This was one of my favourite parts of the programme: it was instructive and fun, and he seemed to have a genuine appreciation for the music.  I also liked what he said about Holbein’s drawings, and appreciated the length of time we were given to look at them, with some nice, long close-ups.  The sonnet section verged on fan servicing, but I can live with that, and it was a very important development, after all.

Before I get on to the inevitable moaning, let me just stress that I really enjoyed the show.  It looked good, it was lively, it was interesting, and it reminded me why I found this period so rewarding to study.  The choice of music was excellent (kudos to whoever chooses the music for his programmes: they have a very good ear, and Catholic tastes too: remember “Kicker Conspiracy” by The Fall for Mussolini’s marching soldiers?).

For me, the main problem with “The Renaissance Arrives” wasn’t that it was patronising or simplistic, but that it seemed sort of rushed.  The subjects were well-chosen, but each segment had been pared to the bone in order to squeeze in another fascinating character or story. The narrative flow was occasionally choppy too (it would have helped if more time could have been spent on the cultural context). There were fewer glamour shots of JF wandering around looking pensive and handsome than in his past programmes (which is a good thing), but I wish the director had also cut back on the melodramatics. JF’s re-enactment of Torrigiano punching Michelangelo was hilariously reminiscent of the scene where Edward Norton beats himself up in Fight Club, but other editing/musical/camera effects were even more distracting: I ended up hiding under a cushion protesting, “Calm down, for god’s sake, no, don’t do that!” during the London apprentice riot link.

Also, JF is known for verging on hyperbole in his most charmingly enthusiastic moments, and he was sailing pretty close to the wind last night, bless him, although when I groused about this to my boyfriend Alex, he disagreed: “Yeah, but at least he’s not like Peter Ackroyd – he just stands there droning on, looking like a stuffed walrus’,” so support for JF from an unexpected source there.

When I turned on the TV last night, I’d come straight from an end of term faculty social, and in some ways, watching “The Renaissance Arrives” was a bit like having a ten-minute chat with a lecturer: it was interesting and enjoyable on a superficial level, but ultimately, it was a bit frustrating.  I kept wanting to stop him and ask him to expand a bit more on something, or ask how/if X or Y was relevant.  Why did Kratzer’s sundial have nine sides? What did people make of Wyatt’s sonnets?  What about the importance of the first bibles printed in English?  If this was the first home-grown painting of the British Renaissance, what were the second, third or fiftieth like?  Hopefully, we’ll find out more next week.

3 responses to “A Very British Renaissance: a few random thoughts plus a half-hearted attack on a journalist

  1. Pingback: A Very British Renaissance Gets Into Its Stride | Transmissions from the Audient Void·

  2. The Wilton Dyptych, the bust of Henry VIII and the west front of Bath Abbey art before the italians. Most artists in late C15 Italy were still treated as artizans


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