SNAPSHOT: ANDREW GRAHAM-DIXON

Andrew Graham-Dixon is one of the most renowned art critics and arts television presenters. He has fronted numerous landmark series on art for the BBC, including the BAFTA-nominated A History of British Art and the acclaimed The Secret of Drawing. And, of course, we all know and love him as lead presenter of the ever-popular BBC 2 magazine programme, The Culture Show.

Born in London in 1960, Andrew studied at Westminster School, won a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford and graduated with a Double First in English Language and Literature. He then went on to post-graduate studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art from 1982.

His passion for art lead him into a career in journalism as a senior art critic, first for UK national newspaper the Independent, then the Sunday Telegraph, for which he still writes his weekly column “In the Picture”.

This November Andrew will be presenting the awards at the World Interior Design Awards at the Saatchi Gallery in London. We spoke to him in the lead-up to the event to find out more about the man and his life-long love affair with art, literature and...football.

Which came first – your love of English language and literature, or your love of art and its history?

They arrived just about at the same time. My mother used to read to me pretty much all the time, and we used to visit museums in London on rainy afternoons, from as early as I can remember.

During your years at Westminster School and Christ’s Church, Oxford, which three literary works had the most impact on you and why?

Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Milton's Paradise Lost, Beckett's trilogy - if I had to narrow it down. Shakespeare for his astonishing use of language, his chameleon-like ability to enter the mental worlds of characters utterly different from one another, his seething humanity; Milton for his violent determination to make a literary structure from the destruction of all literature; Beckett for his hilarious nihilism.

During those same years, what were the three works of art – be they painting, sculpture or object – that inspired and fascinated you most?

Donatello's David, Michelangelo's Laurentian Library staircase, Gericault's Raft of the Medusa.

You admit to being a keen footballer at school and you were even selected to play for the All-England Public and Grammar Schools XI in 1977. Did you have secret dreams of one day holding the FA Cup aloft? Or was it always going to be a more academic path for you?

I played the beautiful game too beautifully for the late 1970s. The world wasn't ready for my exquisite weakness.

What did your post-graduate studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art encompass?

I was supposed to be studying the failure of history painting in England, from Reynolds to Benjamin Robert Haydon. To understand the subject properly I had to find out about everything and eventually my Ph.D metamorphosed into A History of British Art, which was a book and a six-part TV series. My very nice supervisor, Michael Kitson, awarded me an entirely unofficial doctorate over several cups of coffee and about 100 cigarettes some time in the early 1990s.

Why did you choose this area of study?

I was interested in the catastrophic disjunction between British art and art elsewhere in Europe.

Have you ever tried your hand at painting or sculpture yourself? If so, how was that for you?

It was good. Sadly, as in the case of football, the world just now isn't ready for my art.

Moving on to journalism, aged just 25 you were appointed Chief Art Critic of the Independent from 1986-1998, and you’ve been Chief Art Correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph since 1999. Could you tell us about one or two of the highlights, a couple of the most exciting things you’ve written about?

I enjoyed going to Russia for the Francis Bacon exhibition with the late Bruce Bernard, who was a wonderful pictures editor on the Independent. Writing about the new generation of British artists, Michael Landy and Rachel Whiteread and Damien Hirst, Gary Hume and others, was very exciting. There are too many memories to distil, really.

You’ve also written many books about art and arts, the latest being “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane”. Could you tell us a little about it?

He lived the most fascinating life of any artist, in my view, as well as the one that is most fascinatingly reflected in archival material from the time - even though there are no letters, just trial documents and such like. I tried very hard to give the reader the original documents, wherever possible, so that they could see whether they agree with my conclusions: a detective story where all the evidence in placed in full view, so to speak. I hope it's a good book. I think it is.

Do you have your next subject for a book in mind, and if so, are you able to share it with us?

Vermeer and what drove him mad.

Of course, you’re famous as lead presenter on the BBC’s ‘Culture Show’. What has your most memorable interview on the show been? Who was it with and what was it about?

It's a tie. Keith Richards talking about the Rolling Stones and his life. John Lydon talking about the Pistols and PIL. Each gave us about 2-3 hours of their time, so it was the opposite of those flaky celebrity interviews done in 5 minute time slots. I was entranced by each of them, in very different ways. I still can't quite believe that Lydon sang Religion straight into my face from about 9 inches away. My hair is still standing up.

How would you describe your style of presenting?

Open to chance, open to inspiration, a bit messy, occasionally funny but not always on purpose.

You’re going to be presenting the awards at the inaugural World Interiors News at the Saatchi Gallery this November. What’s your interest in interior design?

I'm fascinated by all aspects of the visual world. My main interest in interior design is that it should get better. I hope these awards will help this happen by calling attention to the best practitioners in the field.

For you, where do the boundaries between art and interior design merge – if you think they do? How do they relate to each other?

They always merge, or should do. Look at Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library staircase. Mark Rothko was obsessed by it, by the idea of blank windows that maybe lead to the infinite. Design IS art. In Renaissance Italy they used the same word for both, disegno.

Have you attended and/or reviewed exhibitions at the Saatchi Gallery before? Can you tell us about any you particularly enjoyed?

Many. I loved the exhibitions at the old space in Boundary Road. Recently, I enjoyed the rather dark survey of Russian art at the Saatchi.

Finally, do you have any notable career plans for the near to medium future?

I'm currently making three TV series, about the Art of China, about four artists who lived through the First World War, and about the culture of southern Italy. I'm making a series about Gothic art next year, also. And trying to start writing my next book, about Vermeer.

Gail Taylor