I've always thought that art historians are uncomfortable with history, and historians are uneasy about visual art.
However, David Starkey, presenting the first of a promising series aired on Channel 4 last Sunday: 'The Genius of British Art', seemed to be meeting art history halfway. Opening the programme, the frosty historian broke into a smile as he reminisced on his old history don, Geoffrey Elton, who never lectured with visual aids. Starkey himself was more liberal in his use of art; he trotted out a whole range of English portraits from the time of Raphael up to the Warhol prints of Elizabeth II and other modern royals. Given his enthusiasm for visual art fostered by visits to museums in North England in his formative years, it's surprising that Starkey didn't become an art historian.
As Starkey reminded us, every lecturer is a "performer manqué" at heart, and Elton's party piece was to draw a codpiece on a schematic drawing of Henry VIII, his only concession to the image as a teaching aid. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Starkey gave us an entertaining programme- shades of the performer manqué returning- as he popped up under a Roman arch to underline the use of such structures in Van Dyck's 'Equestrian Portrait of Charles I'; or as he materialized in San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome to make connections between the grandeur of Julius II and the ambitions of Henry VIII.
Though I enjoyed the show, I was sceptical of such connections as comparing modern portraits of Princes William and Harry with the 17th century cavaliers of Van Dyck. I also didn't buy the links between Julius and Henry, which seemed too contrived to me. Such speculative parallels seemed as schematic as the drawing of the Tudor monarch mentioned above. I could have looked for more stylistic analysis too. Starkey must know Erna Auerbach's Tudor Artists whose preface states: "This study in the history of art is founded on a combination of two methods: the examination of original documents and the comparison of artistic styles." Still, Starkey is a history man- and this is a set of polemical visual essays where anything goes. Speaking of another history man- the so-called History Czar- I wonder how Simon Schama would have tackled this subject?
This sort of series is just as much about the presenter as the art, so it'll be interesting to see how the other talking heads compare to Starkey. Lined up are curator and cultural historian Gus-Casely Hayford, novelist Howard Jacobsen, historian and former museum director Sir Roy Strong, T.V. presenter Janet-Street Porter and newscaster Jon Snow.