11.01.2017
11:57

Life, Art and Kenneth Clark

The impact of Kenneth Clark, the erudite patrician raconteur of the episodes of Civilisation, his majestic survey of European art first shown on the BBC in 1969, will always resonate with those who watched him. He adopted an unashamedly elitist approach that was delivered in a memorably clipped voice. ‘Civilisation’, he told us, was always precarious and would have been lost with the fall of the Roman empire if a few geniuses had not restored and kept it alive. It could be seen in exquisite buildings, great paintings and superb craftsmanship. Civility and rational thought acted as a backdrop to this fragile world distanced as it was from the toil and turmoil of everyday living

 

Of course, Clark’s approach was challenged, not least a few years later by John Berger in his Ways of Seeing, which looked far more critically at the way that art masked privilege and was used to maintain status. But when I listened again to one or two of Clark’s episodes (for the first time since 1969) I still found them absorbing. They drew me to this new biography of Clark by James Stourton, an accomplished art historian and former UK Chairman of Sotheby’s. I had enjoyed a retrospective of Clark’s life at Tate Britain in 2014 but had been disappointed by Meryle Secrest’s earlier life, which showed little understanding of the man and the world he lived in. This is a much more sophisticated and searching study.

 

Clark’s upbringing, as an only child on the large Suffolk estate of his fabulously wealthy parents, did much to shape him as a loner who developed a passion and sensitivity to art which provided him with the most enduring relationship of his life. He was lucky, while at Oxford, in securing the patronage of Charles Bell, the Keeper of Fine Art at the Ashmolean, who allowed him to explore freely the wonderful collection of Italian drawings. It was Bell who took him to Italy and introduced him at the age of 22 to Bernard Berenson, by now firmly ensconced at I Tatti, his villa outside Florence. Stourton suggests that it was within the Berensen ménage that, for the first time in his life, Clark found an emotional home. As their recently edited letters [https://www.amazon.co.uk/My-Dear-BB-Berenson-1925-1959/dp/0300207379/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1484131492&sr=1-1&keywords=my+dear+bb] show, their relationship endured until Berenson’s death in 1959 but neither was able to establish a warm intimacy and a persistent undercurrent of rivalry pervades their correspondence. Clark’s first marriage, to Jane Martin, gave him his chance to escape Berenson’s tentacles and to embark on his glittering career back in England, working on the royal collection of Leonardo drawings, curating at the Ashmolean and directing the National Gallery through the challenges of the Second World War.

 

The Clarks became one of the must-have couples of the 1930s and their circle was wide. The relationship lasted but it had its bad moments, with Jane’s alcoholism and Kenneth’s affairs. The longest of these, with Janet Stone, lasted thirty years and the few extracts from their letters which have been published (most are still embargoed) show him at his frankest and most unbuttoned. Yet even here there would be limits. He failed to marry Janet when both were free to do so and in a melancholy aside Stourton tells how many of her letters to him were discovered still unopened. It is hardly surprising that Clark remained an enigma to most of his acquaintances. He often spoke of himself as a fraud, as if there was some appalling secret about him about to be revealed. There was a gulf between how accessible he wanted to be to others and the distance that they usually encountered as they tried to get close. There was another between his glittering lifestyle, his castle at Saltwood, and his adventurous purchases of art, and his claim to be a socialist at heart.

 

Even so, Clark’s expertise and extensive address book kept him going from post to post. He was always much more than a social butterfly. His patronage of important artists such as Henry Moore and John Piper were crucial for their success. He showed, through a love of Japanese art, of Aubrey Beardsley, alongside that of his contemporaries, that he could break free of the rarefied world of Renaissance drawings. He took on roles that seemed far from any of his interests. To become Chairman of the Independent Television Authority when he did not own a television set and when ITA was seen as the harbinger of a collapse in cultural standards appears more than public duty demanded.

 

Stourton deals well with the making of Civilisation. He has tracked down some of the original film crew and interviewed the widow of the director, Michael Gill. Gill appeared to represent everything that Clark most despised. As his widow remembered, the couple did not fear that the barbarians were at the gate, Gill would have actually liked to be one of the barbarians. The relationship between Clark, Gill and the third director, Peter Montagnon, eventually developed into a creative one and the series turned out to be an extraordinary success, especially in the United States. It is what ‘Lord Clark of Civilisation’ is remembered for.

 

It may be that Clark’s life and times are now too remote for this book to be a bestseller (his son Alan made a more recent éclat with his gossipy diaries) but this was a biography that deserved to be written and it has been exceptionally well done. Until the full range of Clark’s letters to Janet Stone are revealed it will be as definitive a life as we could wish for. It may even take some of us back to important books of Clark’s such as The Nude, a groundbreaking study, or his Leonardo da Vinci, still regarded as one of the finest explorations of this genius and praised by Stourton as such.

Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation, by James Stourton. William Collins, London, 2016. Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

  •  
  • 0 Comment(s)
  •  

Your comment

Notify me when someone adds another comment to this post

back

Latest

Islamic Art in Florence
The Seuso Roman silver: on display at last
The Wonders of Pontormo
Builders of Budapest
Crowded Times
Good news from Florence
The Heartwarming Middle Ages
Waves of Art Nouveau
Bookshops in Budapest
Budapest at the Biennale
Living with Leonardo
The Zeugma Mosaics Saga
News from Syracuse
Raphael in Bergamo
Titian in Brescia
Comments and Updates on Blue Guide Budapest
Heroism on the Danube
The 'Romanesque Hall' in Budapest
Dürer in Milan
Re-interpreting the Trojan Horse
Charles I: King and Collector
Fleming and Honour Remembered
Pictures from Lake Maggiore
A late Art Nouveau treasure in Budapest
Anna: Female destinies in Transylvania
What’s on in Florence
Art Within Limits
A Time in Rome
Diana Athill, 'A Florence Diary'
Season’s Greetings
Christmas with the Gonzaga
Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum
Collectors in Florence
European rail changes 2018
A people who changed history
Return to 'A Room with a View'
Italian island food
The Scythians at the British Museum
Rogues' Gallery by Philip Hook
Ferragamo's Return
Silence of the looms
Grammar and Grace
The Seuso Saga
Giuliano da Sangallo
The Black Fields of Kula
Leonardo's "Adoration of the Magi" restored
Venice before Easter
Selectivity at the Uffizi
Guide to the Via Francigena
What Ariosto could see
News from Florence: Giovanni dal Ponte
More than just the David
The formidable Empress Matilda
Life, Art and Kenneth Clark
Hedonist's travel, Hungarian wine
Remarkable Manuscripts
Abstract Expressionism at the RA
Comments on Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old...
Transylvania Launched
Which 50 Sites of Antiquity?
A Treasure in Cagli
The Transylvanian Book Festival
Comments on Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava...
Roman Brixia
The new Museo degli Innocenti
Wine guide wins prize
Jesters at the Court of the Medici
Budapest, Freedom and the Olympics
The Roman Forum Reconstructed
Bernini's Beloved
Blue Guide Paris on Amazon
The Imperial Ramp in the Roman Forum
Sabbioneta, Cryptic City
Secret delights of Florence: the Bellini private museum
Cutting-edge mosque design in Albania
St Francis in Florence
To Austria’s Lake District by rail
Pilgrimage pathways to and from Rome
Five major London museums
Napoleon and Paris: Dreams of a capital
Whither Tate Britain?
The many lives of Nasreddin Hoca
Lesley Blanch: On the Wilder Shores of Love
The Middle Ages on the Road
Hellenistic bronzes in Florence
Europe by rail - an introduction
Frescoes in a convent of a closed order of nuns
Michelin starred Paris
A Michelangelo discovery?
Jan Morris: Ciao, Carpaccio: An Infatuation
The Venus de Milo fights back
Winter in Florence: a new look at Donatello
Tea (or coffee) with the Sultan
Artwork of the Month: January. Medieval stained glass
Which? ranks Blue Guides #2
Giacomo Leopardi: A poet in film
Sassoferrato and the Aion Mosaic
The Aventine and Turner in Rome
Artwork of the Month: December
Rendez-vous with Art
Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age
Giovanni Battista Moroni
London The Information Capital
Changes to European rail services for 2015
Comments on Blue Guide London
Egypt, Greece, & Rome
The Medici Villas of Tuscany and Tourism
Artwork of the Month: November. Reason, Unreason and the...
The first collectors of 'Primitives'
From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town
Artwork of the Month: October. The Arch of Constantine
Sorting out the Uffizi
Waging war with a view
Dull London? Surely a mistake
Artwork of the month: September. Watercolour of the Great...
Italian Venice: A History
A tale of three museums
Rissëu
All Aboard the Cheese Train
National Gallery London to allow photography
Artwork of the Month: August. Bust of Augustus Caesar from...
Sacred Splendours: reliquaries of Florence's pious grand...
Book Review. Helena Attlee: The Land where Lemons Grow
Holiday reading
Artwork of the Month: July. The Phaistos Disc
Budapest to Vienna and Salzburg by Railjet
Marvellous and Macabre: the art of Jacopo Ligozzi
David Esterly - The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of...
Artwork of the month: June, Pordenone's Noli me Tangere
Budapest to Serbia by EuroCity Avala
Saving the Great Bear: Trieste's floating crane
News from Florence
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Baccio Bandinelli: a rehabilitation
Artwork of the month: May. "Flora", Pompeii
Travelling around Britain in style
In praise of plague cakes
Princesses from the Trabzon Empire
Artwork of the month: April. The Seuso Silver
Uffizi selfies come to Budapest
Florentine Mannerists at Palazzo Strozzi
Rome: seasonal stations
Sustainable living in Bolzano
Artwork of the month: March. Murillo's Flower Girl
Tastes change
Francesco Laurana's serene beauty
Being Mithridates
Florence and Buda: two cities of learning
Thoughts on Rome
Copyrighting Heritage
Food is the new Florence
A Grumpy Visit to Westminster Abbey
The Honey Of Hybla
So what is the Turkish Van?
The Pike: by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Smoothly off the buffers
Under Another Sky
'Art under Attack' at Tate Britain
Comments on Smoothly from Harrow
Renaissance art from Florence to Paris and back
Comments on Blue Guide Venice
Hepworth's "Winged Figure": 50th anniversary
Tying the Knot in Urfa
Venice and the Politcs of Washing
Comments on Staten Island: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph
Comments on Short Guide to London 1953
Turin restored and rejuvenated
A palatial art museum in Trieste
The cloisters of Santa Maria Novella
The wonderful Palazzo Grimani, Venice
Pope Benedict: an unorthodox farewell
Obscure St Valentine and his famous Feast Day
Burano in February
The St Agnes lambs
Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi” in restoration
Cathedral picks: Exeter
The real Patrick Leigh Fermor?
The joy of Giambattista Tiepolo
Leonardo’s “Battle of Anghiari”
In praise of Venice’s water transport system
The Red Rooms at the Uffizi
The Blue Rooms at the Uffizi
A trip to the Port of Trajan, outside Rome
Pour l’honneur de la France
An early-morning visit to Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, Rome
Church of SS Luca e Martina reopens above Roman Forum
How the tide turned at the Milvian Bridge
A compelling reason to visit Trapani province
St Augustine and his mother at Ostia
Visiting St Paul’s in London
Hadrian, Antinoüs and the Christian Fathers
Earliest-known image of a martyrdom
Can’t face the Vatican crowds? Try San Lorenzo
Turin, Pisa and mathematics
Ideal cities are all around us. It’s simply a matter of...
On Canaletto and Guardi and Venetian Light
Mithraism: a Roman Mystery Religion
Random Musings on Pontormo and Vermeer
The Amphitheatre of Londinium
Edward Lear and Crete
A handful of favourite things to see in Sicily
The mystery of the veiled virgins
Venice without the crowds
Cividale del Friuli and the Lombards
The Trouble with Snake Goddesses
The tragedy of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico
Oranges, lemons and relic cults: an escape from the queues...
City Picks: Verona
Hitherto unknown language discovered in east Anatolia
Painting of the Day
Museo Barracco: a little-visited gem
Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome
Staten Island: Upcoming Exhibition …
International Gothic at the Uffizi
Celebrating Santa Rosalia, patron of Palermo
Delhi Ghost Trail
Comments on Pilgrim's Rome: A Blue Guide Travel Monograph
The Roman Villa at Balácapuszta (Baláca, Nemesvámos,...
The Bard of….Messina? Was Shakespeare Sicilian?
Rereading Ruskin
Sicily’s emblem: the Trinacria
Luca Signorelli on exhibition in Umbria
The Tribuna of the Uffizi reopens
The Venice equivalent of the anonymous Tweet?
Comments on Blue Guide Sicily
Sicilian Holiday Reading
Attila the Hun and the Foundation of Venice
Death in Venice cocktail a hit
The Gentry: Stories of the English
381 years ago this June
Brooklyn Bridge: a New York landmark
A Venetian Update
Sixth-century church to reopen
Roman Aquileia
Springtime in Friuli
Northern Italy dining and accommodation recommendations
Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome
A celebration of Lucca
Romantic music in a Baroque setting
Blue Guide India Delhi Launch
Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
Comments on Blue Guide India
The Roman Forum
Whispering City: Rome and its Histories
The 15th-century Health Museum at Edirne
City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire
Books about Istanbul
Comments on Blue Guide Istanbul
Comments on Blue Guide Florence
Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor
Comments on The Venice Lido: a Blue Guide Travel Monograph
Comments on Blue Guide Literary Companions: Rome, London,...
Comments on Blue Guide Italy Food Companion
The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto
Holy Bones, Holy Dust
RECOMMENDED PLACES TO STAY AND EAT ON CRETE
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us
Comments on Blue Guide Turkey
Comments on Blue Guide Rome
Comments on Blue Guide Hay-on-Wye
Comments on Blue Guide Greece the Aegean Islands
Comments on Blue Guide Crete
Comments on Sites of Antiquity: from Ancient Egypt to the...
Comments on Blue Guide Tuscany
Familiar face
Comments on Blue Guide Concise Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Paris
Comments on Blue Guide New York
Comments on Blue Guide Central Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Southwest France
Blue Guide Northern Italy
Comments on Blue Guide The Marche & San Marino
Comments on Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London
A day trip to Ostia Antica from Rome - highly recommended
Comments on Blue Guide Southern Italy
Comments on Blue Guide Concise Rome
A day trip from Venice up the Brenta Canal
A day trip to Murano from Venice
Pietrasanta, Pisa: in search of Stagi
Reading list for Venice
Reading list for Florence and Tuscany
The Best Credit / Debit Card for Travel
Ruskin on Venice
Reading list for Rome
Comments on Blue Guide Greece the Mainland

Archive

follow us in feedly