The Today Programme's Greatest Painting In Britain Vote

 by Martin Belam, 16 August 2005

Yesterday alongside the BBC's Radio 4 web team, my team launched the online component of the vote for The Greatest Painting in Britain, which is being held by the Today programme in conjunction with The National Gallery.

The Today Programme site

The National Gallery site

The open nomination period has passed, and now it is a case of voting for one of the ten paintings on the shortlist, all of which are on public display in the UK, if not by British artists. The result will be announced live on the Today programme on September 5th.

The first phase of the vote, where people could freely nominate any painting on public display in Britain attracted a lot of excited lobbying.

Fans of Lenkiewicz ran a campaign to get the portrait of Michael Foot that is on display in Portcullis House into the shortlist, even attracting press coverage for their efforts in The Plymouth Evening Herald and The Western Morning News.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts placed an article on their website urging supporters to nominate the Portrait of Countess Golovine by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, after all "her twinkling smile helps her postcard far outsell any other at our shop".

We'd like to help this beautiful and brilliant portrait reach the competition's final shortlist -- and even win the accolade of 'The Greatest Painting in Britain'.

And YOU can help.

Nominate The Portrait of Countess Golovine by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun in any (or all!) of three ways:

* Log onto the website at the BBC, where you will be asked to fill in the title and artist, and also the painting's location (The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, obviously). You will also get the chance to say why you think this is your favourite painting -- feel free to include amusing anecdotes or quirky facts connected with the painting.
* SMS texting on your mobile phone -- simply type: "TODAY Portrait of Countess Golovine, by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts" to: 84844
* Conventional Post ('Snail Mail') -- again, note down the painting's title, artist and location, together with any reason you might have about why you think it is 'The Greatest Painting in Britain', and send it to:

The Greatest Painting in Britain
The Today Programme
Room G630, Stage 6, Television Centre
Wood Lane
W12 7RJ


Local authorities got in on the act - the Bath and North East Somerset Council issued a press release urging residents to "support the Victoria Art Gallery by voting for a painting in its collection", helpfully listing the five most popular paintings in the gallery (again judged by postcard sales). Further North one of Salford's local elected representatives, Cllr Iain Lindley, used his blog to urge people to support local artist Lowry.

[Incidentally it was good to see that many of the Conservative Party councillors in the area had blogs]

Imitation is apparently the sincerest form of flattery, and The Native Tourist started pondering what the greatest painting in the USA might be, producing their own shortlist of ten. Meanwhile in Scotland The Herald has started a campaign to discover the greatest painting in Scotland, with a similar set-up to Radio 4 voting wise, and a daily focus on a different painting. [via Caledonia Calling]

Yesterday's announcement of the final shortlist of ten excited the broadsheets (and ex-broadsheets). Picked by a panel consisting of Jonathan Yeo, Deborah Bull and Martin Gayford the ten paintings faced the ever eager critical eye of the press today.

The Greatest Painting in Britain site

In The Times Dalya Alberge bemoaned the failure to include a Rembrandt in the list:

The painting - a jewel of one of the world's most important collections of European Old Master Paintings - has just undergone a six-month conservation programme. That has brought out the extraordinary range of colours - yellow, blue, green, orange, red - used in the girl's face.
Richard Dorment in The Telegraph found the list encouraging:
When I first heard the shortlist, my heart sank. It seemed so predictable and dull: a Constable here, a Turner there, and, inevitably, van Gogh's Sunflowers.

But then I realised that its predictability is its strength. These are the paintings in Britain's galleries most often written about, most regularly reproduced. People love them precisely because they are as familiar as old friends.

In a sense, this list - chosen by a panel but based on public nominations - is a tribute to art education. It may be predictable, but it is wide-ranging. It takes in a vivid Hogarth, a Renaissance masterpiece and a terrific Manet as well as paintings that stand for aspects of British life. In that sense, it resembles those classical polls where Mozart, Holst and Elgar dominate - undoubtedly great pieces but also works that people have grown up with and feel they understand.

For The Independent Tom Lubbock offered:

"Nobody could call it lively. I should think even Her Majesty the Queen would have compiled a more exciting list. Yet I'm sure the chosen 10 do reflect public taste pretty accurately: sometimes absolutely right, sometimes bafflingly wrong.

"The Piero, the Raeburn, the Manet, the Van Gogh: no queries there. On the other hand, the two greatest British artists, George Stubbs and William Blake, are overlooked, as is the fact that British collections hold extraordinary paintings by Titian, Poussin, Rembrandt, Watteau, Degas.

"If you must have a pre-Raph, then it has to be Millais, not Brown. If there's only going to be one 20th-century British painter, then Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer and Francis Bacon all score over Hockney. And I would like to see The Fighting Temeraire loaded on to The Hay Wain, and them both quietly wheeled off to some nice art dump."

I just hope I haven't missed Brian Sewell writing about it all somewhere.

Some dissenting voices have been put firmly in their place. Todd Gibson writes in his From The Floor blog:

The voting is stupid, Robert Hughes says, and he's not even going to discuss the subject.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. In one respect he's right. A poll like this won't determine a greatest painting as much as it will a favorite one. It's a popularity contest, after all. Sound critical judgments are never reached through a nomination process and consensus vote.

But Australia's most self-assured iconoclast is painfully short sighted when he dismisses the poll as nothing more than a 'minor circulation-building exercise.' It's building circulation not just for the BBC but for his industry as a whole. Hughes's writing never sparks public discussion about and engagement with painting in the way that this media stunt has.


Sure, the televised outcome will be one painting selected as Britain's "greatest" or "favourite" or whatever. But the real outcome will be people thinking and talking about art who wouldn't otherwise have done so. And that's never a bad thing.

I felt much that same when people kept telling me The Greatest Philosopher vote was "dumbing down". Talking of which, in one article at the start of the project The Guardian's Owen Gibson wrote "Carping critics of the BBC may soon find themselves in the unlikely position of accusing it of dumbing up.". Please don't let us invent another meaningless phrase about media output that starts with the word 'dumbing'

Without me even applying any pressure one of the other areas I am involved with, the BBC homepage, showcased the vote both yesterday and this lunchtime with a picture promo of one of the final short-listed ten paintings.

One of the nominated paintings on the BBC homepage

One of the nominated paintings on the BBC homepage

In truth, I can't say I care for any of the finalists myself.

Especially not the Hockney. A print of "Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy" used to hang in the corner of one of the rooms used for Sixth Form lessons in my school. One look at it and I am instantly transported back into a horrifying adolescent world of simultaneously trying to get to grips with studying the Gospel of St John as a set text, whilst hoping I'm appearing suitably cool to the girl in the class I most fancied. *Shudder*

My choice?

Well as far as I was aware there wasn't anything in the rules that specifically prevented BBC employees nominating a painting, but being involved with the production of the vote I didn't feel it was appropriate to contribute. If I had, I would have gone for "A Group of Dancers" by Edgar Degas.

Mind you, the real artists, as far as I am concerned, are the software engineers and HTML coders who make sure it all works online as it should.


Mr. Hughes is right. It is a stupid contest and the panel have certainly not picked the most popular paintings even of the artists. Surely Stubbs Whistlejacket is a favourite. In fact it is such a ridiculous short list I am saying no more.

Perhaps you can explain, as I don't seem to have found the answer on the today site... As the poll was promoted as being all about the favourites of the public, untainted by the self-important knowledge of art critics, how come the final shortlist was filtered through those same art critics before the public is allowed to vote. What were the top 10 most popular paintings? Or do I have to resort to the Freedom of Information act...?

I have tried to send an e-mail via your "Contact Us" button and it does not work. I am hoping to obtain the address of the site showing the top 10 Paintings, in order, as voted for by the TODAY listeners. I wish to show it to the Guildford U3A Art History Group. \is there a better display available please?

I do not know if you are getting my request for the address of the site showing the top 10 paintings, in order, as voted for by the TODAY listeners. I want to show the the result to my U3A Art History group. Are there any larger reproductions available please?

Thank you
John Murphy

Sites for the vote still exist at Radio 4 and at the National Gallery

You can also (if you know the URL) see the original page with the vote still on it.

For Martin Belam - perhaps you will answer my query as to the order of merit(sic) of the Greatest Paintings vote please. The BBC does not even have the courtesy (BBC arrogance no doubt!) to acknowledge my requests.

Hi John, thanks for your comment - but not quite sure where the BBC's arrogance comes into it.

The Today programme still lists the top ten and the votes cast which is easily Googled and the voting figures are also reproduced on this site

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