Judith Bumpus: Arts radio producer whose diverse range of subjects included Hockney and Huxley
Monday 19 April 2010
In his polemical, often scathing memoir, Tainted by Experience, the arts impresario and former controller of BBC Radio 3 John Drummond had nothing but praise for one of his producers.
"Judith Bumpus," he wrote, "was a highly gifted woman, whose ability to find ways of talking about the visual arts in a manner that compensated for the absence of images I really admired." His admiration was well-chosen. For 30 years, Bumpus brought her knowledge of, and passion for the visual arts to Radio 3, with memorable programmes on Francis Bacon, Bridget Riley, Graham Sutherland, Lucian Freud, Howard Hodgkin and Pablo Picasso, as well as imaginative and scholarly portraits of old masters – notably Rubens – and adventurous explorations of sculpture, architecture, photography and literature. She was in the first rank of radio producers, but so profoundly modest and self-effacing that she never really sought or got the fame she deserved.
Born Judith Collison in Wiltshire in 1939, she grew up in north London and was educated at Channing School, Highgate, and St Andrews University. Here she read German and Spanish and won a travel award to study at Barcelona University. Gifted with an excellent ear as well as eye, she sang in the Renaissance Group choir at St Andrews and won a Hesse studentship for music to the 1961 Aldeburgh Festival. But at first it was the eye that won and took her on a postgraduate scholarship to study art history at Madrid University. This experience, which she hugely enjoyed and which gave her a lifelong love of Spain, led to her first job as junior curator in the National Art Library and education department of the Victoria and Albert Museum from 1963 to 1968. While there she began to use her talent for communication to lecture in the visual arts and to tutor in London University's extra-mural department and at the Open University.
In 1968, Bumpus joined the BBC as a producer in the continuing education department, making arts programmes and designing support material for schools and adults. By this time, she was a wife (marrying Bernard Bumpus, later to become head of BBC international audience research and a distinguished ceramic historian, in 1966) and mother (two daughters, Nicola and Francesca, were born in 1967 and 1968). So she was a full-time working mother at a time when it was still relatively uncommon. And what a worker! There were journeys to Spain to make programmes on Gaudi and Miro; to Argentina, with the translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni, to walk round Buenos Aires with the blind 80-year-old Borges (a wonderfully intimate portrait, this); to France for programmes on Cocteau and Le Corbusier; to Germany in search of Goethe; and to America for everything from Pioneer to Pop Art. On one of those American trips, Bumpus strapped herself and tape-recorder into David Hockney's jeep as he drove through the Santa Monica Mountains at sunset, "The Ride of the Valkyries" at full volume on the stereo, and the painter in full cry on art, life, love, and truth.
Bumpus's range was huge: from intimate portraits of Ernst Gombrich, Frank Lloyd Wright, Nikolaus Pevsner and Maggie Hambling, through series on Art and the Human Condition (with Martin Kemp), Artists and Landscapes (with Roy Strong and Frank Whitford), Master Photographers (with Colin Ford) and British Architecture (with Joe Mordaunt Crook), and on to blockbuster documentaries on Picasso (this won the Ondas Prize), Aldous Huxley (with Valentine Cunningham) and Francis Bacon (with Richard Cork).
Equally good at making fully fledged dramas, like her 1985 Sony Gold-winning production of Colin McLaren's The Amazing Adventures of Baron Munchausen, or her 1983 radio restaging of a 16th-century Spanish trial for heresy, starring Jeremy Irons, she also managed to find time for a regular series of Radio 3 visual arts programmes, Third Ear, and for her own writing. There were books on Van Gogh's flowers, and Impressionist gardens, as well as studies of Graham Clarke, Elizabeth Blackadder and Reginald Brill.
After her retirement from the BBC in 1996, she continued to contribute essays, catalogue notes, articles, and translations, to, among others, the Royal Academy Magazine, Arts and Artists, the Serpentine and Tate Galleries, the Dictionary of Woman Artists, the Gulbenkian Foundation and Art Quarterly. For ten years she was media correspondent for The Art Newspaper and on the advisory committee for artists' lives as part of the National Life Stories collection in the British Library's national sound archive. At the time of her death, she was writing a PhD at Birkbeck College on English landscape painting in the decade after the First World War.
Bumpus was last heard on the airwaves last September, paying tribute to a predecessor, the feature producer Leonie Cohn, in the Radio 4 obituary programme Last Word. As she described Cohn's mixture of passionate enthusiasm for the arts with her gift for getting leading artists and critics to speak, she might have been describing herself. She too belongs to that select band of arts communicators who helped shape the taste of today's art-going public and change the way the visual arts were presented and discussed on air.
Judith Harriet Bumpus, art historian and radio arts producer: born Wiltshire 3 November 1939; married Bernard Bumpus (died 2004, 2 daughters); died 2 March 2010.
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