Magazine article The Spectator

On the Side of Beauty

Magazine article The Spectator

On the Side of Beauty

Article excerpt

One of the more useless jobs I've ever done was as arts correspondent on the Daily Telegraph. On a bad day, I'd have to do something Daily Mail-ish and femalefriendly, like `Patricia Hodge has a baby!' And on an even worse day, I'd have to attend a stupendously dull press conference at somewhere like Covent Garden, hoping to return with a thrilling story along the lines of `Royal Opera House in new funding crisis'.

Most of the people who ran the institutions we arts corrs had to write about tended to treat us as philistine scum. They were lofty, disdainful, paranoid and mendacious. Our function, as far as they were concerned, was to report verbatim their tedious whinges for more money. And when we didn't, they loathed us even more. That's why I'll always remember the extraordinary day when one of them was nice to me: Neil MacGregor.

I'd rolled up to view one of the National Gallery's latest acquisitions, possibly a Lucas Cranach the Elder. `Nice new piccy: so what?' I thought, anticipating the news desk's reaction. MacGregor probably sensed this because he walked stiffly over - I get the impression he's naturally quite shy - and charmed the pants off me with an enthralling ten-minute lecture on the relevance of High German art. It wasn't the only reason I quit that job but it was definitely a factor: I wanted to be on the side of truth and beauty, not scandals and crises.

From what I've gathered, MacGregor has this effect on everyone. Which is why, despite his forbidding air of buttoned-up formality, he makes such a brilliant presenter on Making Masterpieces (BBC 2, Monday). It's not a trendy-looking programme. In fact, there's more than a hint of the Cholmondely-Warners about its old-school starchiness. But, my, how it quickens the enthusiasm and broadens the knowledge!

The series shows how painters' work through the ages was governed at least as much by the materials available to them as it was by artistic vision. In the days of eggtempera, for example, it was impossible to capture the reflective effects of water: if you needed to do a convincing sea, you had to wait for the invention of more shimmery oil-bound paint.

This week's episode, directed by Jamie Muir, dealt with two mediaeval masterpieces - a Cennino Cennini altarpiece and the Wilton Diptych. It's not my favourite period - too flat, too much religion, too much gold - but MacGregor and his silent crew of restorers brought it vividly to life. …

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