Book of the week: Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation

Michael Hall applauds an exemplary new biography of the man who introduced the British to art history.

Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation by James Stourton
(William Collins, £30)

Like many people who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s with an interest in art and architecture, I have my Civilisation story. When the series was repeated on BBC1 (we couldn’t get BBC2, where the series first aired), my parents suggested I might stay up beyond my bedtime to watch it. I can remember the thrill of this unexpected privilege more clearly than the programmes’ content, but even this trivial recollection supports the main argument of James Stourton’s outstanding biography of Civilisation’s author and presenter.

Kenneth Clark brought an appreciation of the history of art to a new, unprecedentedly large audience. My parents had almost no interest in the subject, but they knew that the series was a significant event.

Even when the programmes were first broadcast, in 1969, quite a few young critics thought Clark antediluvian in his patrician demeanour and unembarrassed focus on a European cultural elite. The reply to such views was given by an unnamed journalist in an anecdote related by Mr Stourton. Listening to the future head of Radio 3, John Drummond, complain about Clark’s grasp of political history, she interrupted: ‘My father is 74 years old and lives in Stoke-on-Trent. He has never been interested in art. Last week, he came to London to see me, and his first question was “Where is the National Gallery?”’ As Drummond observed: ‘That is what Civilisation achieved, and I felt properly reproved.’

Rightly, Civilisation takes centre stage in Mr Stourton’s biography. His analysis of its origins and historical context takes us back to Clark’s childhood.

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Although very rich–thanks to a family fortune derived from the cotton mills of Paisley—he was no aristocrat and his love of art was partly a rebellion against his philistine upbringing. Even at the height of his swift, smooth rise to eminence—he became director of the National Gallery when only 30—he preferred the company of artists to that of the grandees of the British pre-Second World War establishment and he voted Labour all his life.

Mr Stourton’s great achievement is to make a unity of Clark’s career. As he explains, the link between the gilded youth of the 1930s and the cultural panjandrum of the 1950s and 1960s —chairman of the Arts Council, the independent Television Authority and much else—was a conviction that the Arts were the birthright of everyone, a lesson that Clark said he had learned from Ruskin.

His opening of the National Gallery early on Cup Final day in 1938 so that travelling fans could visit was an expression of the same sense of social mission that brought Civilisation into being.

It’s more difficult, as Mr Stourton admits, to make a unity of Clark as a man. Although supportive of his difficult, alcoholic wife, Jane, he depended, partly in consequence, on the adoration of a circle of women, some of whom were his lovers and most of whom he treated with a degree of selfishness that Mr Stourton more than once describes as ‘chilling’. how does this lack of empathy relate to what the novelist Anthony Powell referred to as that ‘gift of extra-sensory perception’ so evident in Clark’s work as an art historian and, in particular, the book that I think is his masterpiece, Leonardo da Vinci?

This puzzle lingered in my mind long after I had finished this exemplary biography, which combines Clark’s strengths of clarity and concision, with the quality he so painfully lacked, warmth.