Did you develop a spiralling Netflix addiction during lockdown? Justify your bad habits by following Dickinson’s recommended list of the greatest art documentaries and shows ever made.
1. Kenneth Clark, Civilisation (1969)
There’s a reason this one has remained a benchmark for over half a century: Sir Kenneth Clark’s 13-part series (accompanied by a book of the same title) saw the brilliant former director of London’s National Gallery take his audience on a tour of Western art and architecture, from the Middle Ages to the present. With such broad ambitions, there were inevitable omissions. This was the first magnus opus attempted on TV and John Betjeman described it as ‘the best telly you’ve ever seen’.
“I believe order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must try to learn from history.” (Kenneth Clark, in Civilisation)
2. Sister Wendy Beckett, Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour (1994)
If you were to imagine your ideal of a compelling tv presenter, would it be an elderly Carmelite nun? Probably not. Yet Sister Wendy Beckett, who caught the ear of a television producer while expounding on an exhibition, is exactly that. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and when viewers expressed surprise at her directness in describing the nude human form, Sister Wendy replied: ‘God did not make a mistake when He created the human body, so I am not making a mistake in describing it.’ In this series, Sister Wendy leaves the seclusion of her country caravan to see the beloved works of art first hand, retracing the route through Europe of many eighteenth century travellers.
3. Andrew Graham-Dixon, A History of British Art (1996)
This ambitious series seeks to cover the entire history of British art – from 1066 to the end of the 20th Century – in six episodes. As with Civilisation the scope means that some topics are addressed in greater depth than others, but Graham-Dixon is an engaging and experienced presenter and the series was nominated for several awards including a BAFTA.
4. Brian Sewell, Brian Sewell’s Grand Tour (2006)
In this wholly personal 10-part series, the art historian and critic Brian Sewell devised a way to get paid for living out every classical art historian’s dream: touring a series of beautiful and historic Italian cities, visiting museums, churches and notable landmarks, and discussing art and cultural history with the locals. Reliving the Grand Tour, minus the banditti, avalanches, and other perils – does life get any better? This charming series has many memorable moments.
5. Simon Schama, The Power of Art (2006-08)
This eight-part series, created and narrated by Columbia University Professor Sir Simon Schama, took a different approach to televising art history. Instead of attempting to condense vast swathes of history into a limited time frame, Schama selected eight individual artworks – the earliest being Caravaggio’s David with the head of Goliath (c. 1610) and the latest Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon (1958) – and discussed each in greater depth. His focus on Western male artists has been criticised, but the structure of each episode, which uses a single masterpiece as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the artist’s life and career, draws the viewer in.
6. James Fox, A History of Art in Three Colours (2012)
According to University lore, James Fox has his students to thank for his broadcasting career, after some of his Cambridge undergraduates wrote to the BBC to insist that he be put on television. Whether or not the story is true, it’s believable: the charming and knowledgeable Dr Fox, an expert in British Modernism, has earned critical acclaim (and a BAFTA nomination) for his series of TV programs. A History of Art in Three Colours, in which he explores the historical meaning and usage of the colours blue, white and gold, takes the viewer on a tour that encompasses art history, politics, and psychology.
7. Amanda Vickery, The Story of Women and art (2014)
In this series, Queen Mary University history professor Amanda Vickery looks at the role of women in art history, from the Renaissance onward, in three one-hour episodes. Some of the names she explores will be familiar – Berthe Morisot, Georgia O’Keeffe – while others, such as Sofonisba Anguissola or Lavinia Fontana, may only ring a bell for scholars of art history and interns at Dickinson. Vickery looks not only at the visual arts but at trailblazers in other fields such as garden design (Gertrude Jekyll) and fashion (Madeleine Vionnet) as well. With modern scholarship’s efforts to remedy the imbalance in historical scholarship, this series is worth a watch.
8. Antiques Roadshow (ongoing)
Who doesn’t dream of finding a long-lost Giambologna at a boot sale or a priceless Ming vase in the attic? This series has been running for a whopping 45 seasons for a reason: it adroitly brings together experts in a range of art and antiques fields with members of the public hoping for a spectacular discovery. It’s as good when used as a soothing backdrop as it is for honing your eye to the details that go into appraising collectibles. You can tune in for 5 minutes, or a five-hour marathon. Long may it continue.