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The Popular Connoisseur

Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and “Civilisation”

by James Stourton
Knopf/Vintage, 478 pp., $35.00; $22.00 (paper)
Clark Family Archives
Kenneth Clark filming In the Beginning, his documentary about early Egyptian civilization, November 1974

Once the most celebrated art historian in the world, Kenneth Clark’s star began to fade in the 1980s when a new generation of scholars rejected the object-based scholarship he epitomized and began to study works of art using Marxist, feminist, and psychoanalytical theory. When Clark placed a painting or a building in its historical setting it was to understand more fully how and why it was made, and what it meant to those who first saw it.

Theory-based art history takes the opposite approach: broadly speaking, the scholar is interested in the work of art not as an end in itself but for what its making might tell us about the society that created it, particularly its attitudes toward subjects like race, gender, and social inequality. This kind of art history is taught in most universities on both sides of the Atlantic today. The scholarship Clark represented survives mainly in some museums and exhibition catalogs. Whereas his books were once required reading in undergraduate courses, many are now out of print. Civilization, the television show that introduced millions of people around the world to art history and lit the spark that led to the mass popularity museums and galleries enjoy today, is largely forgotten.

A few years ago, it looked as though Clark’s achievement was well on its way to being lost. Then, in 2014, a delightful exhibition at Tate Britain sparked new interest in him by telling the story of his life through hundreds of works of art selected from the thousands he compulsively collected and commissioned, either for his private collection or for public institutions. With paintings, works on paper, sculpture, and ceramics ranging from Bosch to Bloomsbury, Cézanne, Rodin, and Henry Moore, the exhibition was further enlivened by the inclusion of quite a few of the fakes, duds, copies, and misattributions Clark acquired. The result was an unexpected hit with the public at a time when dreary, incoherent exhibitions curated by theory-based art historians were attracting critical opprobrium and public indifference.

James Stourton’s magnificent biography tells the story of Clark’s life in all its complexity and contradiction. It also reminds us that in his time Clark himself developed an innovative method for studying works of art—one that struck a balance between the then-prevailing disciplines of connoisseurship on the one hand and iconography on the other. And just as the Tate Britain exhibition showed the misses as well as the hits, the story Stourton tells makes it clear that Clark’s apparently gilded career was marked by almost as many failures as successes. The time has come to look at the achievements of a man whose vision influenced the art-viewing habits of generations.

Born in 1903 in London, the only child of a colossally rich heir to a textile fortune in Paisley, Scotland, Kenneth Clark was not a member of the upper classes. His parents were, in Stourton’s phrase, “in the mezzanine floor of English society—no longer trade, landed but not gentry.” They spent their time moving from one large ugly house to another in Scotland, Suffolk, and the South of France, and in each residence settled down to do absolutely nothing except kill birds and small animals. “My parents belonged to a section of society known as ‘the idle rich,’” Clark tells us on the first page of his autobiography, “and although, in that golden age, many people were richer, there can have been few who were idler.”

When he was not drinking or gambling, his father shot, sailed, and fished—and expected his son to do the same. But Kenneth was a born aesthete, much happier rearranging pictures of highland cattle by Rosa Bonheur in his father’s collection than blasting pheasants or standing for hours knee-deep in a trout stream. Clark Senior indulged his son’s interests in music and art and even approved of his early ambition to become an artist.

To have philistine parents providing plenty of money but neither culture nor direction must be the ideal background for an aesthete. Like his father, Clark grew up to become a sybarite and bon vivant—but with one important difference: from an early age, he was addicted to analytical work of a sort more usual in the realms of business administration than of art patronage.

Art history was not then taught in British universities. At Oxford Clark therefore read history, but learned about art and architecture by attaching himself to a series of older mentors. One of the first was the keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, Charles Bell, who offered his protégé unrestricted access to its drawings collection, with its incomparable holdings of sheets by Michelangelo and Raphael. In 1925, when Clark was in his final year at Oxford, Bell escorted him to Italy and there introduced him to his next and most important mentor, Bernard Berenson, the most famous connoisseur of Italian Renaissance art in the world.

In the early years of the twentieth century, art history was still in its infancy in Britain. Since relatively little was known about even major painters of the Renaissance, the foundation of art historical knowledge was connoisseurship and specifically a method of attribution developed in the mid-nineteenth century by an Italian historian, Giovanni Morelli. By looking at thousands of works of art and concentrating on minute details (an earlobe, a big toe, fingernails) the connoisseur trains the memory to recognize an artist’s “hand”—and in doing so builds up a coherent picture of his or her artistic personality.

At their first meeting, Berenson offered the untrained student the opportunity of a lifetime—the job of assisting in the preparation of a new and updated edition of his Drawings of the Florentine Painters, first published in 1903. The volume for which Clark was responsible consisted of alphabetical lists of artists followed by the drawings Berenson attributed to them—but no explanation of the reasoning behind the attributions.

His task was to review the original attributions in light of published and unpublished material that had emerged in the two decades since the first edition. Berenson had of course seen firsthand the works of art he’d attributed. But he had also revolutionized the use of photography for art historical study. This meant that Clark worked mostly in the photo library at Berenson’s villa, I Tatti, near Florence. Though he learned a lot from Berenson, the tedium of his research disillusioned him with the formal analysis of works of art.

Although their collaboration on the Florentine drawings ended in May 1929, the friendship between the two men lasted until Berenson’s death in 1959, largely maintained by letter. Robert Cumming’s impeccable edition of their correspondence amounts to more than just the chronicle of a friendship.1 The thoroughness of his annotations, year-by-year chronologies, and detailed biographical sketches even of the minor characters who flit through this correspondence transform the otherwise disappointing content of the letters into an invaluable work of reference.

In the same year he parted from Berenson, Clark believed he’d found an alternative to the drudgery of connoisseurship when he attended one of the last lectures by the German scholar Aby Warburg. Warburg, after whom the institute in London is named, focused not on the authorship of works of art but on their content. He pioneered the study of the origins and meaning of symbols and how they were used by medieval and Renaissance artists to transmit ideas. Clark was bowled over. “Thenceforward,” he wrote, “my interest in ‘connoisseurship’ became no more than a kind of habit.”2 But soon he came to realize that for Warburg’s followers, a picture’s aesthetic quality was of only passing interest. They were as concerned with crudely drawn, cheaply printed broadsheets as they were with paintings that hung in the Louvre. For them, as for the art theorists in our time, a work of art was not something to be understood or enjoyed for its beauty or because it moves or enlightens us, but because it opens a window onto the preoccupations of its time—for example, the study of alchemy in the late Middle Ages or the study of religions in the ancient world. Years later, after spending a day at the Warburg Institute, Clark complained that

all those dim wraith-like figures in corners of the book stores silently turning the pages of books on iconography seem like ghosts in a Hades of futility. I can see no life-principle in their labours, and I cannot even use their conclusions, because if they ever do publish anything they have forgotten what they are looking for.

Clark’s Damascene moment occurred in front of a work of art on his first visit to Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, when he found himself responding not to the artist’s ability to create the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface (what Berenson termed “tactile values”), or to the paintings’ symbolic content, but to Giotto’s “life-enhancing representations.” By this Clark meant the artist’s genius for building dramatic narrative and expressing emotional nuance through gesture, pose, and facial expression.3

In most of his articles, books, lectures, and broadcasts from the late 1920s onward Clark synthesized formalist and iconographical approaches to the study of art with historical understanding to create a method of inquiry that is uniquely his. He first asks who, what, when, and where the work was made, then questions why and under what circumstances the artist made it—and, crucially, how it was understood by those who first saw it. Clark always relates an artwork to its historical precedents and assesses the degree to which it conforms to or departs from earlier representations of the same subject.

Here he is in chapter six of his best book, The Nude (1956), discussing representations of the dead Christ in late medieval and Renaissance art. After looking at a French fifteenth-century altarpiece in which Christ’s stiffening corpse is shown stretched horizontally across his mother’s lap, he turns to the Italian tradition as exemplified in works by Donatello and Giovanni Bellini. Both show Christ’s dead body in half length, supported in an upright position by weeping angels. Christ’s face and upper torso are shown frontally as in an icon or like a variation on the theme of the Ecce Homo, “behold the man,” Pilate’s words when displaying the bound Christ to the crowd calling for his crucifixion. Then Clark turns to Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s:

[Michelangelo] has accepted the touching northern iconography of the subject, the Christ stretched out on His mother’s knees, and yet has given to Our Lord’s body such an extreme refinement of physical beauty that it makes us hold our breath, as though to suspend the action of time. Michelangelo has adapted antique perfection to its northern setting by giving the body a rhythmic structure the reverse of that in the Gothic Pietà. Instead of rising in a series of angular gables, it sags like a garland.

In three sentences Clark combines art history, art criticism, and precise observation to convey the intensity of his emotional response to the statue. Notice his use of the term “Our Lord” to invite the reader to look at the Pietà in the same way those who first knelt in prayer before it did. What distinguishes Clark from Berenson, Warburg, and most of his art historical contemporaries is his respect for the spirituality of Michelangelo’s conception, coupled with his wholly secular delight in the way the sensuous nude carved in marble “sags like a garland.” Clark brought to the discipline of art history not just an encyclopedic knowledge of artists and their works but something less quantifiable—the ability to enter into an artist’s imaginative world.

Early in 1929 Clark returned to London with no idea of what he might do for the rest of his life. Almost at once—and by sheer chance—a career path opened when he was asked to install the ambitious loan exhibition of Italian Renaissance paintings that Mussolini sent to London as a gesture of good will. Clark had the unprecedented experience of hanging on the walls of the Royal Academy Masaccio’s Crucifixion, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Giorgione’s Tempesta, and Piero della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbino.

The success he made of the exhibition kicked off a fifteen-year career as a museum professional for which he had no obvious professional qualifications. In 1931 he succeeded Charles Bell as keeper at the Ashmolean. Three years later came his appointment as director of the National Gallery, aged thirty. And in 1935 he was commissioned to catalog more than six hundred drawings by Leonardo da Vinci in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle.

The first thing he did at the National Gallery was to install electric lights—forty years after Bond Street picture dealers began the transition from gas to electricity. Visitors could at last see the collection on fog-bound London days, and the building now stayed open three evenings a week. Clark also rehung the entire collection, taking immense care to select sympathetic wall colors, arrange the pictures by school, and declutter galleries that hadn’t changed much since before the Great War.

Until his thirteen-part television series Civilization aired in 1969, Clark was probably best known in Britain as the wartime director of the National Gallery who removed its holdings to a cave in North Wales and then, during the Blitz, invited Dame Myra Hess and other musicians to perform in the empty galleries before daily audiences of a thousand or more.4 In the long term, though, Clark’s most important innovation was his effort to make the National Gallery’s collection more accessible to visitors by extending its hours and publishing inexpensive guidebooks aimed at nonspecialist visitors.5

Like a modern museum director, he built personal relationships with collectors and dealers with the aim of persuading them to give or bequeath their treasures to the gallery. In the case of the Armenian wheeler-dealer Calouste Gulbenkian, Clark came within a whisker of bagging not only the most important private collection of fine and decorative art in Europe, but also gaining an extension to the building in which to show it, together with an endowment that would have made the National Gallery the richest institution of its kind in the world.

But negotiations were suspended during the war, and in 1945 Clark resigned as director. Incredibly, his successor, Philip Hendy, refused even to meet Gulbenkian. Whatever the reason—and snobbish distaste for a foreigner with oil interests in the Middle East is the most likely explanation—a great prize was lost. The Gulbenkian Foundation is today housed in Lisbon.6 It is hard to read anecdotes like this without sympathizing with Clark’s antipathy for most of his curators at the National Gallery and also a fair number of his fellow art historians.

They in turn dismissed him, in Berenson’s words, as “un grand vulgarisateur.” His studies on Leonardo, the nude, landscape painting, and Piero were not based on original research, nor was he interested in the nuts and bolts of cataloguing: measurements, dating, chronology, provenance, and exhibition history. Apart from the respect accorded to his impeccable catalog of the Leonardo drawings at Windsor (1935), curators considered him a slapdash popularizer. When Clark said that his colleagues “loathed the sight of me,” he was certainly right.7

Despite his public image as a man of great learning, influential art historians like Anthony Blunt, John Pope-Hennessy, and Michael Levey dismissed his scholarship as lightweight. Though these mandarins were careful not to say to his face what they thought, their contemptuous views of his work trickled down to university classrooms. I learned about them when I first studied art history in the 1960s.

Clark was rich, handsome, and conspicuously clever—not qualities that endeared him to scholars, many of whom lived constricted lives on the margins of society. As a social figure, he reveled in what he later dubbed “the Great Clark Boom” of the 1930s—when as Sir Kenneth and Lady Clark he and his glamorous wife Jane crested the heights of British society and together formed intense friendships with Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Ben Nicholson, Edith Sitwell, William Walton, and Vivien Leigh—to list only a few of the artists, composers, musicians, poets, dancers, and actors who were guests at their palatial residence in Portland Place near Regent’s Park.

After resigning both from the National Gallery and from the Royal Collection in 1945, Clark never worked in a museum or gallery again. In the decades to come he lectured and wrote about art while serving as chairman of the fledgling Arts Council and of the Independent Television Authority (ITV), the commercial channel set up in 1954 to challenge the monopoly of the BBC. In neither post did he find either success or fulfillment. By nature, Clark was impatient with bureaucracy, accustomed as he was to things done over lunch with a friend or a telephone call to the right person.

Stourton concludes that Clark’s leadership of the Arts Council is “unlikely” to have “made much of a difference” and after three years at ITV his contract was not renewed. But the contacts he made during his time as a TV executive led directly to what is generally seen as his most enduring achievement, the thirteen-part BBC series Civilization. That, as well as starry appointments such as founding trustee of both the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet culminated in his ennoblement, as Lord Clark of Civilization in 1969, and the sort of celebrity usually accorded to pop stars. When he died in 1983 his had long been a household name.

Because he was a follower of Berenson and then a museum director, Clark was usually labeled an art historian, although one who wrote popular books for nonspecialists. But his purpose when writing about art was to evoke in words his personal insights and responses to buildings and paintings that brought a lump to his throat. The term for this is not “art historian” but the one he gave as his occupation at the time of his marriage in 1927: “art critic.” Most of his books are best described as critical essays, and Civilization is subtitled “A Personal View.” Try to imagine those words attached to the title of Blunt’s magisterial study of Poussin or Pope-Hennessy’s of Donatello, and you see the difference between a historian and a critic. A fundamental misapprehension has grown up around Clark. If only he’d been recognized as an art critic—or better still as a journalist—I think he’d have been seen differently and let off more lightly.

Stourton reminds us again and again that the chief literary inspiration behind Clark’s work was John Ruskin. Clark’s favorite among his own books was an anthology of Ruskin’s writings entitled Ruskin Today, and the very first words he says in the first episode of Civilization are Ruskin’s:

Great nations write their autobiography in three manuscripts: the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.

In the episodes that follow he makes no claim to objectivity. The historical information he provides is vitally important, of course, to his understanding, but his poetic descriptions, critical insights, and audacious, sweeping, generalizations are what held his audiences spellbound. Thus the sculptured figures of kings and queens on the central doorway of the west portal at Chartres show “a new stage in the ascent of Western man” because the “refinement, the look of selfless detachment and the spirituality of these heads is something entirely new in art. Beside them the gods and heroes of ancient Greece look arrogant, soulless and even slightly brutal.” A few episodes later he calls the Reformation an “unmitigated disaster” from the point of view of those who “love what they see” and adds that its effects were “not only bad for art, but bad for life.”

This March the BBC and PBS started a “follow-up” to Clark’s classic series. Entitled Civilizations, it will cover in nine programs the whole of human history from the dawn of time to the present day—and include Asia, Africa, and the Americas as well as Europe. Clark stood in front of the camera to argue that the visual arts over a time span roughly corresponding to the chronological parameters of London’s National Gallery represent a pinnacle of human endeavor. The limitations he placed upon himself were one of the strengths of his series because it was the depth as well as the breadth of his knowledge that held us all spellbound.

In the forthcoming series none of the three presenters (Mary Beard, Simon Schama, and David Olusoga) is an art historian, let alone a recognized authority on a branch of the visual arts. The contributions of these seasoned television presenters may well be informative and entertaining, but I’ll be pleasantly surprised if the series is anything like as influential as the original.

Clark adored women—and in much the way he was besotted with art. His attraction to both was as impulsive as it was insatiable, and sometimes as unwise. The pages Stourton devotes to what he terms Clark’s “vigorous private life” sometimes read like Leporello’s “Catalog Aria.” Among his conquests, attachments, and lasting love affairs Stourton mentions Jane’s personal secretary, the family’s parlor maid, the sisters and wives of friends, at least one artist, a famous actress, a best-selling author, a distinguished American collector, and a married lady he met on board a ship to Australia—and who to his horror sought to continue their affair after disembarkation.

Clark had the insouciant attitude toward infidelity prevalent among the British upper classes in his time. Though Jane too had lovers, her husband’s affairs caused her distress and may have contributed to her alcoholism and dependence on drugs. Stourton suggests that she was unstable, as evidenced by tantrums directed not only at her husband but also at her children. Yet there was no question of divorce, and Clark nursed his wife tenderly in the years before her death in 1976.

  1. 1

    My Dear BB: The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark, 1925–1959, edited and annotated by Robert Cumming (Yale University Press, 2015). 

  2. 2

    Clark never developed a reliable “eye,” a deficiency that would almost cut his career short when he acquired misattributed pictures for the National Gallery with public money. 

  3. 3

    A review of this length can’t do justice to Clark’s intense interest in contemporary British art. Though he became friendly with the Bloomsbury critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry, he could not subscribe to their idea (like Berenson’s) that anything useful can be learned about a work of art through formal theories. Such a theory failed to take account of the poetic, emotional, and literary dimensions in art that spoke to him so powerfully. 

  4. 4

    With the building almost empty (each month a single picture was brought back for display) Clark chaired the War Artist’s Advisory Committee, formed to commission contemporary artists like Henry Moore and Paul Nash to record in paintings and works on paper the country’s lost and threatened architectural heritage as well as the contribution to the war effort of miners, foundry workers, and those in military service. 

  5. 5

    In tandem with his time at the National Gallery in 1937 Clark would at the personal request of George V become Surveyor of the King’s Pictures. 

  6. 6

    Clark came to feel that Lisbon was the right place for the collection. To have shown furniture and decorative arts would have fundamentally changed the character of the National Gallery. 

  7. 7

    There were of course defenders, among them Ernst Gombrich.