Bought With Love: The Secret History of British Art Collections


One of the first lines of this new BBC4 series tells us, “400 years ago, Britain was considered a miserable, damp island.” Nothing’s really changed there then. But what has changed in this country however, is the role and status of art.

It’s hard to imagine a world where there were no public art galleries, artists were considered to be regular craftsmen, and their paintings were simply decoration, but this was how Britain was until around 400 years ago.

What we consider ‘Art’ today only began to emerge in the wake of the Renaissance, and the series walks us through these developing attitudes across the 17h Century. Episode 1 begins by telling the tale of Thomas Howard, the “collector” Earl of Arundel, the man credited with making art cool.

His huge appetite for collecting prompted an influx of European art into Britain, which changed the style of British art, and helped bring people’s views of art closer to what we have today.

Presented by the excellent Helen Rosslyn, it’s typical BBC4 stuff – lots of sweeping shots of old things, the ever-present soothing voice of the narrator, classical backing music. This is really a blessing and a curse – if you’re a fan of BBC4 documentaries, then you can’t really go wrong with this. Otherwise, you’ll probably be bored to death.

The subject matter isn’t the problem. It’s just the overwhelmingly BBC4 style that it’s drenched with that makes this otherwise interesting series seem a bit stuffy. It seems as if you know exactly what you’re going to get when you watch a BBC4 documentary, and maybe that’s the problem. There’s no real attempt to get out of this stylistic rut – instead, the channel seems happy to produce a slightly different variation on the last art documentary it made.

Maybe this is a bit harsh – the topic is interesting, the presenting is impossible to fault, and the visuals are beautiful. But if you’re looking for anything other than a soporific BBC4 documentary, then you’ll be disappointed. Only art fans needs apply.

Bought With Love: The Secret History of British Art Collections – July 17th, 9PM, BBC4