Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation

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9780007493418: Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation

The definitive biography of this brilliant polymath--director of the National Gallery, author, patron of the arts, social lion, and singular pioneer of television--that also tells the story of the arts in the twentieth century through his astonishing life.

Kenneth Clark's thirteen-part 1969 television series, Civilisation, established him as a globally admired figure. Clark was prescient in making this series: the upheavals of the century, the Cold War among others, convinced him of the power of barbarism and the fragility of culture. He would burnish his image with two memoirs that artfully omitted the more complicated details of his life. Now, drawing on a vast, previously unseen archive, James Stourton reveals the formidable intellect and the private man behind the figure who effortlessly dominated the art world for more than half a century: his privileged upbringing, his interest in art history beginning at Oxford, his remarkable early successes. At 27 he was keeper of Western Art at the Ashmolean in Oxford and at 29, the youngest director of The National Gallery. During the war he arranged for its entire collection to be hidden in slate mines in Wales and organized packed concerts of classical music at the Gallery to keep up the spirits of Londoners during the bombing. WWII helped shape his belief that art should be brought to the widest audience, a social and moral position that would inform the rest of his career. Television became a means for this message when he was appointed the first chairman of the Independent Television Authority. Stourton reveals the tortuous state of his marriage during and after the war, his wife's alcoholism, and the aspects of his own nature that he worked to keep hidden. A superb work of biography, Kenneth Clark is a revelation of its remarkable subject.

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About the Author:

JAMES STOURTON, the former chairman of Sotheby's U.K., is the author of many books, including Great Houses of London and Great Collectors of Our Time. A lecturer on history, he is also a senior fellow of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

‘K’

Everything about Lord Clark is unexpected.
—Anthony Powell, reviewing Another Part of the Wood[1]

At 12 noon on Sunday, 25 March 1934, King George V and Queen Mary climbed the steps of the National Gallery in London. It was the first time a reigning monarch had visited the gallery. The ostensible reason for the visit was to see the gallery’s collection of paintings, but the real purpose was to meet the new thirty-year-old director, Kenneth Clark. The trustees had been told not to disturb their weekend—a gentle instruction that their presence was not required—the King wished to see the director. Clark had only been at the gallery for three months, and his appointment had been greeted with universal approval—except at Windsor Castle. The King and Queen had been advised two years earlier by Owen Morshead, the Royal Librarian, that Clark would be the perfect candidate for the anticipated vacancy of Surveyor of the King’s Pictures. But Clark neither wanted the job nor felt that he could possibly combine it with his heavy duties as director of the National Gallery. The sixty-nine-year-old King Emperor, in an extraordinary move, decided that he would directly intervene and go down to Trafalgar Square to invite the young man to work for him. He had resolved that Clark was the man he wanted, and where his courtiers had failed, he would persuade him personally. The visit was a success, and the two men—as different as can be—found much to enjoy together. Clark later described how just after proclaiming that Turner was mad, the King ‘stopped his routine progress, faced me and said’:

‘Why won’t you come and work for me?’

‘Because I wouldn’t have time to do the job properly.’

The King snorted with benevolent rage: ‘What is there to do?’

‘Well, sir, the pictures need looking after.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with them.’

‘And people write letters asking for information about them.’

‘Don’t answer them. I want you to take the job.’[2]

There is no other recorded occasion of George V making such an effort—for instance, he never visited Downing Street—let alone for a thirty-year-old aesthete whose interests were as far as can be imagined from those of a gruff, pheasant-shooting, philistine sailor King. What was it about Kenneth Clark that made him so ardent? Clark had already had a similar effect on a series of distinguished elders, who all seem to have believed that they had discovered him: Monty Rendall, his headmaster at Winchester; Charles Bell, the keeper at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford; Maurice Bowra, the Warden of Wadham College; Bernard Berenson, the most famous connoisseur in the world; and Sir Philip Sassoon, the chairman of the National Gallery. He was a Wunderkind from a brilliant generation of Oxford undergraduates; everybody recognised from the beginning that he would achieve great things (so often a recipe for lassitude in later life). Intelligence, charm and charisma played an important part in his story, but he was not alone in possessing these. What set him apart was his focus and complete absorption in art at a time when—artists aside—this was a singular quality. And he brought to this absorption an unusually synthetic power of analysis, expressed in a supple prose style that was able to fuse thought and feeling.

Early in life Clark discovered a sensibility to works of beauty: ‘Ever since I can remember, that is to say from about the age of seven, the combination of certain words, or sounds or forms has given me a peculiar pleasure, unlike anything else in my experience.’[3] He called it ‘a freak aptitude’, and told a friend, ‘What is certain is that without it I would have been no more than an obscure and timid playboy.’[4] This love of art in all its forms sustained him, and in one of the characteristically teasing yet self-revealing passages of his autobiography he remarked: ‘A strong, catholic approach to works of art is like a comfortable Swiss Bank ... I never doubted the infallibility of my judgements ... This almost insane self-confidence lasted until a few years ago, and the odd thing is how many people have accepted my judgements. My whole life has been a harmless confidence trick.’[5] The confidence of youth was followed by the doubt of age.

Self-doubt is the last quality that anybody meeting Clark for the first time would have suspected. Most people were terrified of him and feared being snubbed, an attitude that baffled Clark himself, who was always expected to be one thing but was invariably something else. A folklore grew up around him—‘impossibly, implausibly, supernaturally debonair’; ‘delicately poised between diffidence and disdain’; ‘a tranquil ruthlessness’; ‘he measured people and turned on an appropriate amount of charm’—were all opinions offered about Clark. Most descriptions refer back to his solitary and protected childhood. His introversion suggested to many that he possessed no ‘radar,’ or much perception of other people’s feelings; he could appear self-absorbed, and often cut people without even realising it. Yet those who worked for him—cooks and secretaries adored him—found him easy, and even cosy. There was a private Clark and a public Clark, one funny and warm, the other formal.

As Anthony Powell suggested, everything about Clark was surprising—he might have added contradictory and paradoxical: the writer who loved action, the scholar who became a populariser, the socialist who lived in a castle, the committee man who despised the establishment, the indefatigable self-deprecator whom many found arrogant, the shy man who loved monsters, the ‘ruthless’ man who hated confrontation, the brilliantly successful man who considered himself as a failure, the mandarin who had a passion for lemonade and ice cream. The impenetrably smooth performer had a highly emotional side, weeping in front of works of art and subject to spiritual and religious experiences. Graham Sutherland, who knew him as well as anybody, and lived in his house during the war, said: ‘of course K is a divided man ... & of all my friends the most complex.’ Behind all this was a mania for independence—never wishing to be caught or identified with any group except artists. As one confidante put it, ‘He was nervous of contamination.’[6]

There are many Kenneth Clarks to describe: the museum director, the courtier, the darling of society, the Leonardo expert, the man of action, the wartime publicist, the would-be contemplative scholar, the lecturer and journalist, the administrator and the professor, the television mogul and performer, the public intellectual, the non-academic art historian, the collector, the patron, the committee man, the conservationist, the family man and the lover—the sum of the man is equal to the parts. Describing Clark’s apparently detached progress through life, his younger son Colin thought that parents, schooling, wife, child and art all just flowed by like interesting scenery, and his father was scarcely aware that ‘there were other human beings on the planet until he was about twenty-eight years old.’[7] Worldly or unworldly, Clark expected to go onto boards and for women to fall in love with him. It did not seem odd to him that he was offered the chairmanship of the Independent Television board without ever having owned a television.

An appetite for public service, born out of the ethos of Winchester, informed Clark’s life; a belief that the elite justified their position through pro bono public works. What was unique about him was his position, through which the creative and academic worlds met those of power and influence. As early as 1959 the Sunday Times thought that ‘It will be difficult to write the definitive history of England in the twentieth century without some reference, somewhere, to Sir Kenneth McKenzie Clark.’[8] His role in public life, broadcasting apart, is less obvious to us today; the evidence lies in the minutes of meetings preserved in archives such as Bournemouth (the Independent Broadcasting Authority) and Kew (the Ministry of Information). There are, however, the astonishing outcomes: his hand helped build and guide arts institutions that we all take for granted today: the Arts Council, the Royal Opera House, Independent Television, the National Theatre and countless others. Everybody agreed that his writ ran everywhere: ‘K Clark doesn’t think much of it’ was a knockout blow in debate.[9] His success on committees was based on an exceptionally careful reading of the papers, an acute analysis of the options, and a well-thought-out response. He would rarely be the first to speak, and waited to be asked his opinion, which was usually the one that counted. Everybody wanted to know what Clark thought. This was rarely predictable, and in writing this biography I have found that it was impossible to be sure what Clark would think on any subject. Anita Brookner wrote of the ‘unshakeable fairness of outlook [which] may have been his most extraordinary achievement.’[10] Clark, however, rarely looked back with satisfaction, and even had a sense of disappointment with his contribution to most of the institutions and boards he joined—except for Covent Garden and the Scottish National Gallery.

What is certain is that Clark never wasted a minute more than he wanted to with people, subjects or institutions. He was extraordinarily disciplined with his time. Everything was timetabled—even friendship and love affairs. He was a master of disengagement. His only relaxation was to write, and what a master of prose he was. If his books are still read today, it is as much as anything because of the pleasure of reading about art described in such beautiful language. Books, lectures, essays and letters poured from his pen in those snatched moments when he was not engaged in public life. The constant question I asked myself while writing this book was, how on earth did he manage to do it all?

Clark always portrayed himself as something of a loner; he honed his lecturing skills as a child, soliloquising on country walks. But he needed an audience; he was a natural teacher who could make any subject interesting. When he was not lecturing to the public, his audience was invariably female—Clark was always most at ease with women. His greatest pleasure in life was to share his interests with a woman. The first of these was his wife Jane. What an extraordinary figure she was: moody, mercurial, expansive, generous, clever, rash, destructive, fascinating, pathetic and magnificent. No single description could ever remotely describe Jane, who Clark needed as ivy needs oak. Her unusual powers of sympathy were exercised on everyone from Margot Fonteyn to the station porters at Sandling, and were matched at home by a shrew-like anger of astonishing force. She is the key to understanding Clark—she was to support him and persecute him, and this cycle was the pattern of their life together. Clark and women are inseparable—they fascinated him, and he made the second half of his life unusually complicated by a series of amitiés amoureuses. But Jane was the greatest love affair of his life, however strange this may appear as the story unfolds.

Clark’s sharpest critics were drawn from his own profession. As the Burlington Magazine pointed out: ‘It has become almost a habit, among a very small minority, to sneer at Clark’s lifestyle.’[11] The fact that he lived in a castle made him an irresistible target, and so did his inability to fit into the world of professional art history. With notable exceptions such as Ernst Gombrich and John Pope-Hennessy, his professional peers increasingly viewed him from the 1960s onwards as a non-academic television presenter and literary figure. He did himself no favours by once comparing their scholarly minutiae to knitting. But to the world beyond the Courtauld Institute of Art, whether highbrow or middlebrow, Clark came to represent the popular idea of an art historian. He became an emblem of art and culture to the public. Clark’s own hero in this endeavour was the great nineteenth-century writer and thinker John Ruskin. His debt to Ruskin can never be sufficiently emphasised, and it informed many of his interests: the Gothic Revival, J.M.W. Turner, socialism, and the belief that art criticism can be a branch of literature. But above all, Ruskin taught Clark that art and beauty are everyone’s birthright—and he took that message into the twentieth century. This is the central point of Kenneth Clark’s achievement.
 
1. Daily Telegraph, 10 October 1974
2. Clark, Another Part of the Wood, p.237
3. Clark, ‘Aesthete’s Progress’, John Murray Archive
4. Letter to John Hubbard, 30 May 1972, Tate 8812/1/4/36
5. Clark, Another Part of the Wood, p.45
6. Yvonne Gilan to author
7. Colin Clark, Younger Brother, Younger Son, p.6
8. Sunday Times, 27 September 1959, p.5
9. Michael Levey, obituary of Kenneth Clark, Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. LXX, 1984
10. Sunday Times, 16 September 1984, p.42
11. Burlington Magazine, July 1973, Vol. CXV, No. 844, p.415

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Book Description HarperCollins Publishers, United Kingdom, 2016. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. SUNDAY TIMES ART BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016The astonishing life of Kenneth Clark - the greatest British art historian of his time. As writer and presenter of the TV series Civilisation he was responsible for the greatest syntheses of art, music, literature and thought ever made - `a contribution to civilisation itself .Drawing on previously unseen archives, James Stourton reveals the formidable intellect and the complicated private man who wielded enormous influence on all aspects of the arts and drew into his circle a diverse group, many of whom he and his wife Jane would entertain at Saltwood Castle. These included E.M. Forster, Vivien Leigh, Margot Fonteyn, the Queen Mother, Winston Churchill, John Betjeman, Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore. Hidden from view, however, was his wife s alcoholism and his own womanising.From his time as Bernard Berenson s protege at I Tatti in Florence to being the Keeper of Western Art at the Ashmolean aged 27 - by which time he had published The Gothic Revival, the first of his many books - to his appointment as the youngest-ever director of the National Gallery, Clark displayed precocious genius. During the war he arranged for the gallery s entire collection to be hidden in slate mines in Wales, and organised packed concerts of German classical music at the empty gallery to keep up the spirits of Londoners. The war and the Cold War that followed convinced him of the fragility of culture and that, as a potent humanising force, art should be brought to the widest possible audience, a social and moral position that would inform the rest of his career.No voice has exercised so much power and influence over the arts in Britain as Clark s. James Stourton has written a dazzling biography of a towering figure in the art world, a passionate art historian of the Italian Renaissance and a brilliant communicator who, through the many mediums of his work, conveyed the profound beauty and importance of art, architecture and civilisation for generations to come. Bookseller Inventory # AA89780007493418

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Book Description HarperCollins Publishers, United Kingdom, 2016. Hardback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. A SUNDAY TIMES ART BOOK OF THE YEARA SPECTATOR BOOK OF THE YEARAN ECONOMIST BOOK OF THE YEARA NEW YORK TIMES ART BOOK OF THE YEAR From his time as Bernard Berenson s protege to being the Keeper of the Western Art at 27 and his appointment as the youngest-ever director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark displayed precocious genius. No voice has exercised so much power and influence over the arts in Britain as Clark s. A formidable aesthete, his coterie included John Betjeman, Winston Churchill, Margot Fonteyn, E.M. Forster, Vivien Leigh, the Queen Mother and Henry Moore. Hidden from view, however, was his wife Jane s alcoholism and his own philandering. In James Stourton s dazzling biography, Clark is shown as a man who conveyed the profound beauty and importance of art, architecture and civilisation for generations to come. Bookseller Inventory # AA89780007493418

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