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A late summer's day, in 1918,
and a painter, fatigued from four years on the Western front,
was making his way through this forest.
His name was John Nash and he was searching for inspiration.
As the sun began to set, he finally found what he was looking for...
..a vast golden cornfield shimmering in the evening breeze.
But for Nash this wasn't just a cornfield...
this was England,
beautiful, bountiful England -
the England he'd fought so hard to protect,
but even as he painted,
he feared this vision of his country would disappear forever.
Britain had just emerged
from four gruelling years of war and while it had been victorious,
it had in the process lost all of its old certainties.
Everyone seemed to be experiencing an unprecedented crisis of identity.
But in this uncertain and anxious age,
it was the artists who would help Britain to find itself again.
It's my belief that the 20th century
was a golden age of British painting, unsurpassed before or since.
And between the wars, when the character of the nation was under threat,
it was our painters who showed us what Englishness was
and where it could be found.
Some retreated to nostalgic fantasies...
..while others confronted the harsh realities of their own times.
Some voyaged deep into the mystical English landscape,
but in the darkest hour of the Second World War,
they came together to forge an image of a nation we could all recognise,
believe in and fight for -
an image that still shapes the way we see ourselves today.
RADIO: It is our privilege to give you this opportunity
of listening to the Right Honourable Stanley Baldwin MP.
I have been asked by the BBC to say something about the English character
and I gladly agreed to do this because I think it is a good thing at a time like the present
to take stock, as it were, of our national characteristics and generally to investigate
where it is that we derive what we call our English character,
and how it is fitted to help us in the struggle that lies before us.
In the years after the Great War, a mood of self-doubt hung over the nation.
A generation of men had been sent to slaughter in the trenches.
Cracks were beginning to show in the British Empire,
and the forces of modernity were challenging
all that was once held as sacred.
Many started to question what Englishness was, and whether it existed at all.
But it was Stanley Spencer, one of our greatest painters, who thought he knew the answer.
Spencer had grown up in Cookham, a quintessentially English village, on the banks of the River Thames.
He enjoyed nothing more than the annual regatta,
when the entire village came out on show.
This was his childhood paradise that insulated him from all the troubles of the outside world.
But with the Great War, Stanley's paradise would be shattered.
Stanley was torn away from Cookham, and endured the horrors of war in Macedonia,
which he would commemorate at his Sandham Memorial Chapel.
But it was his return home to Cookham that would affect him most deeply.
Stanley was pretty much the first man to return to Cookham after the war,
but he was greeted with awful news.
His younger brother Sidney had been killed on the front over three months earlier
and Stanley hadn't even received a letter to tell him of the tragedy.
But it wasn't just this, the whole village seemed to have changed.
Most of the boys were still away on active service,
and where once the sound of laughter and gossip filled these streets,
now, like this morning, there was just silence.
And I really think that it was at this point that Stanley decided what to do.
He would turn Cookham back into the paradise it had been when he was a boy.
He began producing a series of inspired religious paintings
that transformed the ordinary streets of Cookham into the sites of miraculous biblical events.
In Stanley's mind, Christ takes a detour down Cookham High Street
on his triumphal return to Jerusalem.
The local brewery hosts the Last Supper...
..and Jesus carries the cross past Stanley's home.
But for Stanley the most uplifting of all biblical stories would take place here at Cookham Churchyard.
Stanley envisaged a great spiritual epic - a painting of life and death,
and life after death,
and it was going to be the culmination of his attempt to make Cookham a heaven on earth.
OLD RECORDING: You see, everything has a sort of double meaning for me,
there's the ordinary, everyday meaning
and the imaginary meaning about it all.
And I wanted to bring these things together
and in this...
first big resurrection picture of mine, er...
one has really rather a good example of that kind of thing.
I think I'll try and do a sort of personally-conducted tour
through the picture.
Stanley Spencer's Cookham Resurrection
depicts the heroic moment at the end of days
when all the dead are reborn into paradise.
But, as always, Stanley effortlessly combines the epic with the everyday,
so it's not Christ who's being resurrected, but Stanley's friends, family and neighbours.
And they're not being reborn into a celestial paradise, but Stanley's earthly paradise, his village.
You can see God in the porch of the church
with Jesus underneath him holding some babies
and along this wall you've got, as you have in the Sistine Chapel,
all the prophets and thinkers.
Notice that they are all in different positions of thinking.
For instance, that is very much the position of thought.
These figures here, these men, have just come out
of the ground, they're dirty, so their wives are dusting down their jackets
as if to say, "You're in heaven now, be presentable."
I was thinking of my father
and my mother brushing him down before he went to London -
little, intimate, ordinary, personal happenings.
Those men lying on the top of the stones I like very much,
because it gave me the feeling that the resurrection
was a peaceful occasion and I'm very fond of peace
and I like the happiness, that's the main idea of this picture.
And it's all about hope and love and happiness and optimism.
You don't get paintings like this any more.
People don't paint pictures like this.
Happiness and hope and optimism and love aren't fashionable any more.
But for Stanley that's what art was all about
and here is Stanley right in the centre, nude, surveying the scene.
I think that's all I can think about it at the moment.
But it's actually got another dimension to it as well,
because there's one character who's depicted not once, not twice,
but three times in this painting.
Here going over to the stile in the distance into the water,
here smelling a sunflower
and here wrapped in ivy and that is a woman by the name of Hilda Carline.
And when Stanley first started painting this picture
he'd just met Hilda and she was to become the love of his life.
Stanley had met Hilda at a dinner party
and fell in love with her as she was dishing out the soup.
After a protracted courtship, the two married in 1925.
At first, they were deliriously happy and it seemed that Stanley's paradise was complete,
but we all know there tends to be trouble in paradise.
Stanley had been married for 12 idyllic years
when one day there was a new arrival in the village.
She was a glamorous young artist by the name of Patricia Preece,
and Stanley could not resist her charms.
On hearing of his dalliance with Patricia, the village was rife with gossip.
He liked Patricia.
She was very elegant then and I think...
she led him on.
You know what life is like,
men are very susceptible to, um...
..the wiles of women, shall we say?
I quite liked her. She was tall and thin, when dressed up very elegant
but if you called - if she opened the door, which wasn't often - she used to look terrible.
Well, I think they thought that she was a gold-digger
and just after him because he was a celebrated artist,
and making a lot of money at the time.
I think he was bowled over by her glamour,
because Hilda was a member of a very artistic family, unconventional,
and, um...I think Patricia was just the opposite.
She was vey glamorous and I think meant to be rather aristocratic and conventional
and I think he was attracted by that.
He was led on by Patricia who we know was a lesbian living with another woman,
so I think in that way he was naive
but, um...perhaps wanted the impossible, you know.
Stanley left Hilda, and four days later married his lover.
And so began a darker period of his life and work.
After the marriage,
Stanley and his new wife were due to go to Cornwall on honeymoon,
but what actually happened
was Patricia went ahead early with her girlfriend
and Stanley stayed behind with his ex-wife.
It was evidently not an ideal situation,
and Stanley was so confused and distressed by the situation
he became physically unable to consummate the marriage.
And this painting is all about Stanley's impotence.
Now how many artists would make a picture about their own impotence?
Picasso only made it about his having enormous virility,
so you can see this is Stanley confronting this nude woman
and yet it's so extravagantly flaccid, his penis.
It's a deeply sexual painting, but I don't think it's at all erotic.
There are all this clues everywhere
that there's no sex in this marriage whatsoever.
The raw meat down here,
it's uncooked in the same way that the marriage is uncooked.
The fire in the distance is contrasted
with the coldness of their flesh.
It's that sense of only the fire can artificially warm them up
because they themselves are cold.
And there's this almost comical fact,
Stanley is still wearing his spectacles.
But the cast-iron proof for me that this relationship
is not quite right is contained in the eyes.
There's no eye contact at all,
Stanley is staring covetously, perhaps desperately,
down at Patricia's breasts
but she is staring just vacantly into the distance.
And it's that disconnect, it's that empty, passionless, sexless space
between husband and wife that tells us this marriage is doomed -
doomed from the very start.
I genuinely can't think of a more honest painting
in the history of art. So much art is about vanity,
the vanity of the artist, the virility of the artist
but there's no vanity here, this is about Spencer having no virility.
There's no glamour, there's no romance and all that's left
is a devastating essay in failure, in rejection and in loneliness.
For a British painter at this time,
Stanley's work was dangerously explicit
and as their fractious relationship broke down,
Patricia threatened to use it to discredit him.
Terrified, he hid it under his bed
where it remained for the rest of his life.
The English paradise that Stanley had tried so hard to recreate was lost.
But across the country, another artist was out hunting for his own piece of England.
With his cravat, tweeds and stiff upper lip,
Sir Alfred Munnings is a deeply unfashionable painter these days.
But in his day he was a colossus of the arts establishment -
a die-hard traditionalist
who would fight for his idea of Englishness to the very last.
Munnings liked the good things in life.
In fact, for Alfred, only the best was good enough,
and he too was searching for a post-war paradise
and he did the journey not by foot or by rail,
but the from the comfortable back seat of a chauffer-driven motorcar.
And he did the whole trip with a cigar in one hand
and a hip flask of whisky in the other.
Alfred's idea of paradise was very different to Stanley's.
He was driven directly to the heart of Constable country
and as he passed through the village of Dedham,
he pulled over for a spot of liquid lunch.
He was here actually having a picnic and some drinks
when he fell instantly in love with this house
and within just an hour he'd bought it.
£1,800 for the house, 40 acres, numerous cottages and plenty of staff.
It was to be his home and his studio for the rest of his life.
If you want to understand Alfred Munnings, I think all you need to do
is take a really close look at this painting,
because what he's done here is distil his entire world view
into one gloriously sentimental image.
He's actually painted his four favourite things in the world.
And I'm going to deal with them in ascending order of preference.
His fourth favourite thing in the world was his wife.
I think she may have actually come further down the list than that,
but that's the subject of another film.
His third favourite thing in the world was his house here in the background,
this wonderful building I'm standing in today.
Alfred's second favourite thing was Alfred himself, and you can see him there,
looking very proud of himself, holding this very painting in his hands.
But Alfred's favourite thing of all by far...
was his horse.
In fact this is just one of them, he had 34 horses.
Horses would prove not just his greatest hobby but the secret of his extraordinary professional success.
He was a bit of a rough diamond, really.
That's the words I'd use to describe him.
He would shout and holler and swear, especially if he was doing a painting
and you didn't sit still or anything like that.
Well, my first memories as a young child - I was probably seven or eight -
and I used to come over with my father because my father was looking after the horses.
Very good relationship. He worked for him for 40 years.
Sometimes Munnings would ask me to sit on the wooden horse.
If he wanted to do a sketch, you'd have to sit there for a couple of hours.
If he was doing a painting, and he needed somebody to sit,
everything else stopped.
He loved the races and he liked to go out on the horses.
He loved Newmarket.
This is The Gallops at Newmarket. For Alfred Munnings it was pretty much the best place on the planet.
I've never actually been here before, but I can completely understand where he's coming from.
This is about seven in the morning, the sun's just come over those trees behind me,
and there's dew glistening on the grass.
Everywhere you look there are thousands of extraordinary creatures,
thundering across the countryside.
And you can hear the hooves battering on the grass
and the sounds of breathing and the steam coming off their bodies.
There are jockeys everywhere, and trainers in the middle observing and commanding.
It's a completely extraordinary experience.
And for Alfred, this is what Britishness was really about.
Alfred became the darling of an aristocracy who longed to relive the decadence of the Edwardian age.
Equestrian paintings had a special place in the British tradition,
and he was determined to keep that tradition alive.
In his paintings of horses, Alfred Munnings captures everything, the play of light on the horse's
musculature, the grace and power of its movement, and the ever-changing
quality of light and atmosphere in the English countryside.
Alfred Munnings is one of the most naturally gifted painters in British history.
He truly is a modern master.
Yet he's hidden from our galleries, he's ignored by our universities
and he's glossed over in our books, and why?
Simply because of what he painted.
And that can't be right, surely?
But in his day Alfred was rewarded with the ultimate honour,
President of The Royal Academy of Arts.
At last, he had the perfect platform from which to preserve
and promote the 'Great British Painting Tradition'.
But during one banquet, Alfred went a bit too far.
Alfred had drunk numerous glasses of sherry with his guests before the dinner,
then he'd taken white wine, followed by red wine with the meal itself.
He'd then consumed generous quantities of port with his cheese, as you're supposed to do,
and he finished with several large glasses of Champagne for each of the five toasts.
So when he finally got up to speak, he was completely and utterly sozzled.
And he forgot that the BBC was broadcasting his every word, live to the nation.
'I find myself a President of a body of men who are what I call shilly-shallying.
'They feel that there is something in this so-called modern art.
'If you paint a tree,
'for Lord's sake, try and paint it to look like a tree.
'And on my left I have Mr Winston Churchill, I know he is beside me,
'because once he said to me, "Alfred, if you met Picasso coming
' "down the street, would you join with me in kicking his something-something side!" '
'I said, "Yes, sir! I would!" '
Alfred's been hated for that speech for over 60 years.
It's pretty much all he's been remembered for now actually, and,
of course, I disagree with everything he said, of course I do, but I respect him for it too.
I respect him for standing up for what he believed in.
Alfred believed in a traditional English way of life and
traditional English art, and he was prepared to fight for it.
But I think deep down he knew that those traditions, the things that he loved,
were disappearing though his fingers with every day that passed.
COMMENTARY: These are the days when some men throw their anger
'against the contentment of the establishment.
'And it takes a deal of discontent to make a man walk 300 miles across
'England to demand his share of progress and prosperity.'
At the end of 1920s Britain was plunged into political and economic turmoil.
This was the era of mass unemployment and the General Strike.
And there was one painter who believed that
the true spirit of England resided in the working class.
His name was William Coldstream.
Coldstream had started his career producing rather pedestrian paintings of the world around him.
But he soon came to doubt their value in these turbulent times.
'I became for a moment rather despairing about painting.
'It seemed to me that one wasn't doing something which
'could be hooked onto or connected with any very obvious wide public.
'It seemed to me at the time that perhaps painting wasn't
'the most appropriate medium for the 20th-century person.'
Coldstream grew convinced that in a world of modern technology and political upheaval,
old-fashioned art was elitist, irrelevant and perhaps even immoral.
So in 1935, he made a bold decision,
he would give up painting all together and turn instead to the art of the future.
"This is The Night Mail crossing the border
"bringing the cheque and the postal order
"Letters for the rich letters for the poor
"The shop at the corner and the girl next door
"Pulling upbeat at a steady climb
"the gradient's against her but she's on time."
He joined the pioneering documentary film unit of the General Post Office
where he collaborated with Benjamin Britten and WH Auden.
Coldstream's finest contribution was as editor for the film, Coal Face.
'Coal mining is the basic industry of Britain.
'The coalmines of the country employ 750,000 men.'
In its day, it was a dangerously provocative piece on the working conditions in British coalmines.
'The miner works in a cramped position.
'Often he has scarcely room to swing his pick.'
But curiously it was his work in film that would lead him to rediscover painting.
But it was Wystan Auden who said he ought to start painting again. >
What go back after the '30s, you mean?
-Back after GPO film unit.
And he somehow got the courage to go back and then found his direction.
Coldstream headed North, to the industrial town of Bolton.
Bolton had grown rich with the enterprising spirit of the Victorian age,
but by the 20th Century it had fallen on hard times.
COLDSTREAM: I did feel, I think, that there was something worthwhile about the subject,
that these were the conditions in which a lot of people lived in this
town which had this industrial work going on where somehow the live and important things in a general sense.
He was rather shocked by the conditions of the people... >
..but he also thought it was a good thing to do in, you know, during the slump and, erm,
and he thought it was a sort of useful thing to do.
Deep in the archives of the Bolton Museum are photographs taken by
Coldstream's friend Humphrey Spender.
It's this world, this working class world, its pubs and
its football stadiums and its shops and its chapels, that Coldstream wanted to immerse himself in.
It's this world that he wanted to make his art about.
It's these people, the woman walking back from the shops, the man playing darts in the pub,
the people supporting Bolton Wanderers Football Team,
it's these people that he wanted to make his art for.
It was an attempt to understand the ordinary person. >
He wanted to show ordinary life in its unvarnished sootiness.
Produce something socially relevant.
And he was quite brave because he was going against the swim and that was very unfashionable,
and he had to keep going, and I think that was,
erm, quite a brave thing to do.
Coldstream woke at 4.30 every morning for three weeks.
He climbed to a vantage point high about the town
and there began work on what was to become the definitive painting of 20th Century Industrial Britain.
It was up here, as he spent those gruelling wet and windy
three weeks working on that picture, that Coldstream had a revelation.
A revelation that seemed to answer all the questions he'd ever had
and one that would change his art and his life forever.
As he looked down on the streets and the houses and the factories,
and the inhabitants of Bolton, he understood at last what the British people actually wanted.
And they didn't want art, they didn't want beautiful images and elegant fantasies,
they wanted something far more important, they wanted reality.
'I was excited by the idea of what would happen if one tried to make
'an absolutely direct record of one's experience of nature with the fewest
'number of things coming in-between oneself and it and the least awareness or thought about style.'
Coldstream now committed himself to making paintings of people and
places, with greater realism than anyone had ever achieved before.
And he set about converting a younger generation of ambitious artists to his own realist cause.
'I remember Bill very well, I mean, I the incredible presence he had for me
'in that he was always there at The Slade.
'I remember Bill coming once into a room and asked'
what I was doing and I said I wanted to make that thing move and I was trying to get the painting work.
He said, "Do you know, John, I never look at the painting,"
he said, "I try not to see it, I walk in and look at the model."
And I thought the man's crazy, I'm making a picture!
But what he was doing, by being almost mischievous and throwing me,
was saying, you know, "Forget about that stuff about what you want to make and so on.
"Let the appearances tell you what is exciting and what's beautiful."
I think that's really the most profound influence he had on me.
He made me think that it was the actual appearances that I'd got to let dictate to me,
and not me going there doing what I wanted to do and imposing myself on them.
'Coldstream's teaching methods stopped me trying to make the things
'I thought I could see and make the things I actually could see.
'He taught me to think about looking as an adventure in itself
'and not just a way of finding things to describe objects.'
COLDSTREAM: I was in an excited state, thinking that I'll try and paint this portrait
without any regard to style and simply, as it were, recording this person.
I got a lift through the feeling that I'd do this,
say I'd never looked at a painting before, and trying to make the thing
as like - whatever you mean by that - as I can.
This is a typical painting by William Coldstream.
Typically boring, it's so glum, murky and uneventful.
But that's precisely what makes it so revolutionary.
This is what Coldstream had been working towards all those years.
This is his final prototype for a new British socialist art of the future, an art of the people.
And it's only glum, murky and uneventful because, let's face it, life is too.
And he wanted to make this painting as close to real life as it was possible to get.
He took six months of painstaking labour to make this picture look this ordinary.
See the stolid and uninspired composition,
see the sketchy hesitant brushwork,
see how he hasn't even got rid of the outline and workings underneath.
That's all part of Coldstream's attempt to take, if you like, the artiness out of art.
To transform it from an elitist adventure of
the imagination into nothing more than good old-fashioned hard work.
It's a strange ambition, a strangely British ambition, but it's strangely refreshing too.
Nowadays artists want to be quirky and eccentric and crazy and shocking,
but I think we'd be a lot better off today if more of them aspired,
like Coldstream, to be just plain ordinary.
'But I think he was very sad at the end of his life when he started to get ill.
'He did say, "I think that people don't really like my painting." '
I think that did rather depress him.
But he wasn't very well when he said that so...
he put the worst construction on it but I do think he did feel under appreciated,
and rather sad about it because he knew he couldn't paint in any other way.
He was a painter of great integrity.
I think he bloody well knew they were good pictures,
very good pictures, and his friends did. All sorts of people did.
Lucian Freud knew he was a damn good painter, people knew it.
How do you make a whacking great reputation like that? I mean how many pictures did he make?
Hardly any. Very, very slowly, very small.
I mean they're not hammering off the wall like a Francis Bacon, are they?
They're sitting there quietly. You've got to go into them and become a part of them.
He's not making it easy for you.
'London 1936, the first surrealist's exhibition.'
But Coldstream's efforts looked hopelessly out of date when a rowdy
and fashionable avant-garde arrived in London from Paris.
'The Daily Mail calls it "shocking!"
' "Pictures unfit for the public at large!" '
The surrealists provoked the public with shameless publicity stunts.
Here's Salvador Dali - up to his old tricks.
He and his friends plundered the dark depths of the human mind to make disturbing dreamlike paintings
and to Britain's many innocent artists it seemed exotic,
revolutionary and seductive.
If you're a serious British artist in the 1930s, you're now faced with a difficult decision.
Do you fight for Britishness, like Spencer, Munnings and Coldstream?
Or, do you throw in your lot with the foreign avant-gardes and go modern?
It's a tough decision. British? Modern?
If you choose the former you risk being irrelevant, if you choose the later you risk being despised.
And many artists faltered at this point but there was one
who decided to do something no-one else even thought of doing.
He would try to reconcile the two, to make British art modern, and modern art British.
It was a masterstroke and his name, Paul Nash.
Paul Nash had made his name as one of the most powerful painters of the First World War.
But his sympathies with surrealist ideas went back much further.
He was born into an affluent middle class home, but his was not a happy childhood.
He was a weak and nervous boy, bullied at school during the days
and tormented by terrifying dreams at night.
His mother was a manic-depressive who was prone to fits of violent rage.
Paul created a secret world for himself where he could hide from all those things that upset him.
This is Nash's hiding place, and it's right at the end of his garden, the house is over there.
And being here today, you can see exactly what captured his imagination about this place.
The whole thing is like a kind of magical kingdom.
Down there for instance, that's a tree stump,
but at the same time it looks like a gnarled fist.
And this is where Nash developed this extraordinary idea,
the idea that nature was alive, that it had a personality
and that he had a kind of intimate relationship with it.
Nash's favourite part of the garden was this row of trees,
which marked the perimeter of the family's property.
He was transfixed by them.
He had this lovely idea that they were like a row of women
hurrying into the distance wearing these fantastic hats.
And you realise with ideas like that,
Nash was for want of a better word a surrealist,
but he was a surrealist years before term was even invented.
It was Paul's childhood communion with nature that inspired him
to take to the road in search of a uniquely English style of surrealism.
Paul Nash was like no other motor tourist.
He wasn't interested in the picturesque villages and quaint pubs
and sandy beaches that everyone else was looking for.
Instead he was drawn to the dark, strange and uncanny corners of the English countryside.
On his journeys around England, Nash painted a singular set of landscapes.
A pile of logs by the road in East Sussex.
And a haunting array of objects on a Dorset cliff top.
But the climax of his journey was in the ancient landscape of Wiltshire.
Paul Nash first discovered this part of the country in the summer of 1933,
in quite extraordinary circumstances.
He was actually out on a day trip
when he suffered a severe asthma attack in a bus.
His other passengers genuinely feared he was dying,
and he was being rushed to a nearby hospital
when suddenly he glimpsed something through the window.
And as soon as he saw it, he made a miraculous recovery.
What Paul had seen was a great field filled with standing stones,
and that was just the beginning of a remarkable relationship.
When he came here, I don't think his mind was in a good shape,
because he was searching for a direction in his work,
and when he came here, he found a way of connecting
his interest in surrealism with his love of landscape.
The thing that I find interesting is that it's full of history.
You're aware of the whole of man's history in this island,
since the beginning really, and you can see it all around you.
Or you're aware, you get a sense of it.
Paul Nash had an overactive imagination,
so where most people like me see this as...well, an old stone,
he saw it as a 4,500-year-old person
making his way slowly but quietly across a field.
It's an extraordinary idea, and one that I think only a child,
a mad man or a visionary artist
could have been lucky enough to have had.
He has always been a sort of hero to us, really,
and painters don't lose their impact.
They're still as powerful, because he just
took the feelings he had when he was there and made them into a painting, and that's the best way to do it.
The way he used the paint was so powerful, as well.
He didn't fuss it around. He just put it on with power, and that comes through.
Nash painted the stones of Avebury again and again,
but his masterpiece shows them as a set of modern manufactured structures
that have somehow crash-landed in a cornfield.
It's inexplicably haunting,
as much a landscape of Paul's mind as it is of the Wiltshire plains.
I think Paul Nash had a revelation here,
and I think that revelation was this.
You didn't have to go to Paris to find surrealism.
You didn't have to read Sigmund Freud,
and you didn't have to go to Bohemian restaurants and cafes.
All you had to do was get out into the English countryside,
and you could find our own native surrealism everywhere you looked.
Because after all, what's more surreal
than the chance encounter of a modern artist and an ancient boulder in an English field?
As the 1930s drew to a close,
many of those artists who'd flirted with modern, continental painting
felt compelled to return to the British tradition.
No one felt a stronger urge to do this
than the last of the great inter-war painters, John Piper.
Early in his career, Piper had been at the centre
of the British abstract movement.
But this remarkable footage from 1937
captures him at the crossroads,
torn between the British painting tradition
and European modernism.
In the last few months I've been taking works
from the London galleries to the Alexandra Palace
and commenting on them and showing them.
In the comments that I've made, I've tried to be impartial,
but I've kept in mind all the time the high percentage of so-called modern art
that is always to be seen in London Galleries nowadays.
This is a painting, a landscape by the English master
Thomas Gainsborough, from the Agnew Collection.
It's an example of Gainsborough's early work
before he went to Bath and executed his famous portraits.
And this is a masterpiece of another kind.
It's a contemporary painting by a Spanish artist whose work,
although he's over 50 and his reputation is enormous,
still causes many quarrels. His name is Picasso.
This picture is very intense in colour and very lovely.
I think as lovely in its own way as the Gainsborough in its way.
-'The battle for Britain is on.'
30 enemy aircraft over the Channel, flying due west.
But it was the course of history
that would now dictate the direction of John Piper's work.
In September of 1939, Britain once more went to war with Germany.
It's a Gerry. Take cover!
With the outbreak of war, Piper abandoned his continental tastes completely
and turned back to traditional British painting,
determined to make art that reflected the apocalyptic mood of the times.
He travelled through the barren Pennine Hills to Renishaw Hall,
the home of author Sir Osbert Sitwell,
a man convinced that the end of days had finally come.
'I, a citizen of the sunset age,
'an Englishman who saw the world's great darkness gathering,
'salute you, stranger, across the chasm.
'It may be that there's little immediate future for mankind,
'and that only many centuries hence the ruins will be uncovered,
'and our distance successors in some form of civilisation
'will, as they contemplate the various buildings of which the very use is forgotten,
'wonder about the life of a people, already forgotten,
'though so few hundreds of years have passed.
'It is difficult to know the end of the world when you reach it.'
Piper used to come up and stay a lot during the war,
and I think it must have been a relief from what he was doing elsewhere.
And Edith lived here during the war as well with Osbert,
and so the two of them, they used to write all day.
All morning they wrote, so Piper really had the place to himself.
So I think that it was a very inspirational thing
for Osbert to have commissioned him.
'Above all, my message is that the world could have been saved,
'perhaps still can be, though the spirit of man,
'especially through art, its noblest and most important manifestation.'
This is the Great Hall at Renishaw,
and I'm tremendously excited to be here,
because I'm surrounded on all sides by John Pipers.
Over there is a great big panoramic view of Renishaw and Bolsover and Hardwick Hall,
and the great Derbyshire countryside around.
And behind me are a set of just truly wonderful portraits
of Renishaw itself - the north front, the south front,
and of course at the bottom the stable block.
But this picture is particularly exciting
because it shows Renishaw seen from above, standing on the roof.
And seeing them all together is quite a powerful experience,
because what you actually get the feeling for in this room
is that it's a kind of altar to the English stately home,
to that great enduring symbol of English civilisation.
But when you take a closer look at these pictures,
you realise it's not just a celebration.
Look at the dark skies, the ominous crenulations, the dead oak tree over there,
and you begin to see that all of these pictures are filled
with a sense of doom, of destruction, of peril.
And of course Piper made these in the midst of a terrible war,
and his visits up here were a kind of refuge for him.
But even then that shadow of war, of destruction,
of the obliteration of the English way of life, is everywhere apparent.
When you first arrive at Renishaw, it is quite daunting,
and there is this extraordinary sort of luminosity,
wonderful light glow, but quite gloomy at the same time,
and it's got that sort of surprise element of, what am I coming up to?
What is going on here? What is this house all about?
I think that's key to Piper and to Renishaw.
But Piper's powers as an artist would be tested to the full
when the apocalypse finally came.
On the evening of November 14th 1940,
Coventry was the target of a devastating blitz.
Eleven hours of blanket bombing all but obliterated the city.
'When dawn broke the following morning,
'it was drizzling, and there was a mist over the town
'as men and women began to crawl out of their shelters
'to look for their friends and survey the ruins of their city.
'My mother and I were in the house alone
'when the bomb hit the house next door.
'Then the next day we started out and we walked.
'Hardly a building remained intact.
'Fires were still raging in every direction,
'and as we walked the ruined streets, we hardly knew what to do.
'The greatest difficulty was to gather the children
'from the various parts of the city which was, by this time, pretty well a wreck.
'It seemed so hopeless, our homes, shops and places of work
'and so much of our lovely old city in ruins.
'You might say we were dazed.'
Piper arrived here at around 11:30 in the morning,
and nothing could have prepared him for what he saw.
Firemen were still fighting the flames,
bodies were being dragged out of the rubble,
and everywhere the families of the missing were desperately searching for their loved ones.
Confronted by scenes like this,
Piper couldn't exactly get his sketch pad out and start drawing,
so he found a secret vantage point and there set to work on a painting of immense emotional power.
The ruins of one building stood out amid the wreckage.
It was Coventry Cathedral.
I don't think any family in Coventry, they didn't lose someone.
You know, a lot of heartaches, there was.
We lost me auntie, uncle and three cousins in that blitz, 1940.
When I look at that painting, I do get a sense of sadness,
because it reminds me of me relations I lost,
and that's what it is, it's a sad loss.
It's a loss I don't want to see any more.
John Piper's little painting
is often called our answer to Picasso's Guernica.
Maybe it is, I don't know.
But it's such a different painting.
So much more British, so much more understated.
There's no melodrama, there's no rage.
There aren't even any people.
But I kind of think that's the point.
Piper doesn't need people, because those ruins are the people.
Those ruins are the whole of Coventry,
and I think those ruins are the whole of Britain as well.
Broken and burning,
but at the same time completely and utterly defiant,
standing four square in the face of adversity.
I'm sure that John Piper's painting
softened the heart but hardened the will of all those who saw it.
But I think all the painters of this period played their part in the war effort,
because it was THEIR paintings that together
gave us a vision of the England that we were fighting for.
-'We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be.
'We shall fight on the beaches,
'we shall fight on the landing grounds,
'we shall fight in the fields and in the streets.
'We shall fight in the hills.
'We shall never surrender.'
In an age of anxiety, artists helped Britain find itself again.
With their paintings they remembered a country to which all of us could escape.
They invented a country that all of us could love.
And, as the shadow of a new war descended,
they forged a country for which all of us could fight.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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