Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and “Civilisation”. By James Stourton. William Collins; 478 pages; £30. To be published in America by Knopf in November.
LORD CLARK OF SALTWOOD, who was ennobled by Harold Wilson in 1969 after the triumph of his epic television series “Civilisation”, became known more familiarly as Lord Clark of Civilisation. To one unsympathetic academic critic in the art world, he was Lord Clark of Trivialisation. Friends and colleagues called him simply “K”.
Neil MacGregor, formerly director of the National Gallery and the British Museum, argues that K “was the most brilliant cultural populist of the 20th century”. “Nobody can talk about pictures on the radio or on the television without knowing that Clark did it first and Clark did it better.” Clark’s hero was John Ruskin, who believed that beauty was everyone’s birthright; and his achievement was to make this sound like common sense. But his reputation was not sustained. After his death, he was probably better known as the father of Alan Clark, a flamboyant politician, seducer and diarist.
In his working life, K had more pies than fingers to put them in: director of the National Gallery when it symbolised the cultural contribution to the war effort, with famous recitals by Myra Hess and the removal of the collection to the security of a Welsh quarry; chairman of the Arts Council and the authority that established commercial television in Britain; deeply involved in the revival of the Royal Opera House and the creation of the National Theatre; author of studies on Leonardo da Vinci and the nude in art.
These positions made him a quintessential figure of the British establishment, admired and feared, though behind the façade he was prone to shafts of self-doubt. He was the only son of a family that founded mills making fine cotton thread in Paisley, and he inherited immense wealth, but he always insisted that he was a socialist. King George V was so anxious to have Clark as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures that he ignored protocol and visited him personally in the National Gallery to persuade him to take the job, which he did. Clark understood that the life he liked depended on close co-operation with the governing classes, but he could also despise them.
James Stourton’s delightfully readable and authoritative biography is absorbing on the rise and rise of a gilded, lucky young man in a hurry. After Winchester (a school he did not like) and Oxford, he began work in Florence as a researcher for Bernard Berenson, a great student of the Renaissance. He was nearly 28 when he was offered the chance to become keeper of fine art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, 30 when he was appointed director of the National Gallery. He already had a reputation for automaton-like, and often terrifying, efficiency, and he could be off-hand and impatient. But he was very good at running things.
There was, however, more to his life. Mr Stourton, a former chairman of Sotheby’s in Britain, describes Lord Clark as a man who loved being in love. These affairs and dalliances must have stirred his vanity, but one result was that his wife, Jane, drank heavily. K remained a loyal social partner, but he did once confess: “All the ladies I loved took to the bottle.”
His story could be read as a morality tale. For after Jane’s death, Lord Clark married Nolwen Rice, a woman he scarcely knew. She fought for possession with Janet Stone, the great love of the second half of his life. It was an ugly battle for succession in which Clark, all vanity spent, played no part. For a career that was propelled by a relentless pursuit of elegance, it was an inelegant finale.