Meet the Caravaggio-esque New Face of BBC Arts Programming: A Q&A With Art Historian James Fox

Meet the Caravaggio-esque New Face of BBC Arts Programming: A Q&A With Art Historian James Fox
Der Kunsthistoriker James Fox
(Courtesy BBC)

James Fox is charming, handsome, and learned. One of his students described him as resembling Caravaggio’s "soft boy" paintings, and he was once propositioned by Germaine Greer in a library basement. He teaches at University of Cambridge and is being groomed as the next great BBC arts presenter.  Did I mention that he is still under 30?  It’s enough to drive you to drink, except for the fact that Fox is also kind and hard-working.  I knew him from our days as Cambridge post-graduate students, and even then I could see that he would make a fantastic teacher and presenter.

Before completing his doctorate at Cambridge and returning as a professor, Fox had already begun a career as a television presenter for art history programs in the UK.  BBC was tipped off to his potential when a group of his students surreptitiously sent a letter to the BBC arts commissioner recommending him.  BBC has some of the world’s finest arts programming, with leading lights such as Kenneth Clark, Simon Schama, and Andrew Graham-Dixon on their roster.  Fox is the newest and the youngest, but has an impressive roster of programming already under his belt, including a series called British Masters which aired in the UK this summer and is about to air on BBC America, as well as having co-curated a major exhibition at the British Museum that featured new sculptures by the likes of Damien Hirst, with whom Fox is now on a first-name basis.

In this exclusive interview with ARTINFO UK, James Fox discusses British art of the First World War, how to become a television presenter, and how to sneak into Turkmenistan.

What did you study at Cambridge, and what led to your interest in art history?

I originally planned to be an artist, but it soon dawned on me that I was staggeringly untalented. I decided that the next best thing was art history — that way I could at least get to see good art, even if I couldn’t produce it. Still, I confess that every time I see an exceptional painting my admiration is tinged with the raw envy of an outshone schoolboy. As for Cambridge, well, I chose it for its beauty. When you walk to lectures every morning past King’s College Chapel, how can you fail to be inspired?

You have a particular passion for World War One era art in Britain, and have studied some rather esoteric movements, such as Vorticism.  What is it that draws you to this period and these styles?

Vorticism may seem esoteric to the rest of the world, but in Britain this was pretty much our only ever avant-garde! Vorticism almost single-handedly dragged our desperately old-fashioned art-world into the 20th century, but it didn’t last long. Just as it got up and running the First World War came along and ripped the whole movement apart. Who could seriously fail to find this fascinating?

You studied at Cambridge and Harvard, and spent a semester at Yale.  Having been to three of the top four universities in the world (sorry Oxford), how would you describe the differences and similarities?

I’ve been very fortunate to work at such institutions. All have superb resources, superb scholars, and superb undergraduates.  But they have very different personalities. Cambridge, I think, is the most fun place to be a student. Harvard’s Widener Library is without peer. And Yale has the best pizzas.

How did you first begin to work in television? It was initially as an intern, wasn’t it?

Not as an intern, but as an art history researcher for the incomparable critic and presenter Waldemar Januszczak. I learnt a huge amount from him, both about art and how to make arts television. I made around a dozen programmes with Waldemar over a period of five years, and still like to help out his fantastic production company ( when I can.

How did you make the leap from the “back room” of a production company to being the presenter, on camera?

It’s a rather strange story. Some of my students apparently wrote to the BBC, asking it to employ me as a new arts presenter. I knew nothing of this note, but a year later I received an email out of the blue from the BBC arts commissioner inviting me to go in for a meeting. I went, clueless, of course. A few months later I was out filming my first programme.

Which veteran television presenters do you admire, and what have you learned from them?

The BBC has produced a string of great presenters over the last half-century. Kenneth Clark was so authoritative you felt unworthy to even watch him. David Attenborough continues to make cutting-edge television 50 years after he started. But for me the finest presenter in the business is David Dimbleby. He too has appeared onscreen for half a century now, and believe me, it shows. He is so comfortable and effortless in front of the lens. The whispered piece-to-camera, the understated twinkle in the eye — it seems simple, but when you try to replicate it you realise how truly difficult good presenting actually is.

I am just starting to work as a TV presenter myself. What tips would you have for someone with aspirations, or indeed shows in development, but who is as yet unestablished?

I wish I could give some constructive advice. The television industry is so fast-moving and ever-changing that even established presenters find themselves uncertain of future commissions. My real advice, therefore, is this: establish yourself in another career so that if anything goes wrong you don’t find yourself out of work!

How do you think arts programming differs in the UK versus the US?

Most, but not all, British arts programming is made by the BBC. It invented the genre many years ago and it still in my view does it better than anyone else in the world. Part of the reason for this is political. The BBC is required to produce hundreds of hours of arts programming every year, not for financial gain, but as part of its public service remit. For this reason it encourages uncommercial projects (are not all arts programmes uncommercial?) that place quality before profit. This makes it an incredibly bold and invigorating organisation to work for.

What courses do you teach at Cambridge now?

I run a core-paper for all second-year undergraduates in art history at the University of Cambridge. It covers theories and approaches to art from Plato to Postmodernism. We cover 2,500 years of art history in 16 very short weeks. Let’s just say that I’m as exhausted as the students by the time we reach Baudrillard…

Are you working on a book?

Don’t remind me. I’m currently writing a heavy-duty academic study of the First World War and its impact on British art. There will be some interesting bits, I hope, on spies, camouflage, and propaganda, but at the moment I seem to spend more time formatting my footnotes than writing glittering prose! I have some other projects too, but I’m keeping those under wraps for now.

You’ve done four programme hours with the BBC thus far, I believe. What were they and can they be viewed now by those outside the UK?

Four and a half, actually. My first film was a feature-length (90 minute) programme called The Art of Cornwall, which focussed on an extraordinary modernist outpost at the edge of England. It flourished in the middle of the 20th century, and produced abstract paintings of such quality that it even got Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock worried. My most recent series, British Masters, went out last summer, and recounted the whole history of 20th-century British art, from Walter Sickert and Francis Bacon to David Hockney and Lucian Freud. Both, I believe, will be coming on to BBC America some time soon.

One program involved your sneaking into a country that was not too keen on being filmed. Can you tell us about that?

Oh yes! Turkmenistan. One of the most secretive countries in the world. I went there with a film crew in 2006. At the time it was ruled by a lunatic dictator who’d renamed the months of the year after his family and spent most of the country’s GDP on gold statues of himself in the capital city. We were one of the first film crews to ever gain access there. But we only managed it by pretending to be a highly eccentric bachelor party!

How did the British Museum exhibition come about, in which you (at a remarkably young age) wound up curating the likes of Damien Hirst and Anthony Gormley?

In 2008 and 2009 I co-curated an exhibition at the British Museum that included some major contemporary works of art, including the largest solid gold statue in history – Marc Quinn’s sculpture of the supermodel Kate Moss. I can’t quite recall how it actually came about, but I do remember trying to convince the Museum’s director Neil MacGregor by waving a set of printouts in his face one morning. Clearly it seemed to have worked.

After British Masters, what do we have to look forward to?

British Masters is now complete so I’m working on my next project, with the same brilliant team. I can’t say too much at this stage, but its working title is A History of the World in Three Colours; it will take us from King Midas to Apollo 8; and it will premiere some time in 2012. Look out for it!

Noah Charney is a professor of art history at American University of Rome and internationally best-selling author of fiction (The Art Thief) and non-fiction (Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece).  He writes a regular column for ARTINFO, “The Secret History of Art.”