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Kenneth Clark

Life, Art and Civilisation


James Stourton


London:William Collins, 2017

Paperback reissue (First Edition, 2016). xvii+478 p. ISBN 978-0007493449. £10.99


Reviewed by Sue Breakell

University of Brighton Design Archives




There is a vivid moment late in this book when the author quotes the published diary of Alan Clark (1928-1999), the late MP and son of the book’s subject, art historian and broadcaster Kenneth Clark (1903-1983). Alan reports having found his father’s engagement diaries of the 1940s and 1950s, and dismisses the endless committee work they record as “a complete waste of time” [403].  The incident may tell us more about the son than that father (Alan says the diary is “virtually indistinguishable” from his own – all those political meetings, “what’s the point?”), but it is a neat illustration of the sedimentation of history, and how the interpretation of an archive, and indeed of a life, is a highly subjective act. Few reading Stourton’s biography would concur with Alan Clark’s assessment, and Stourton rebuts it firmly: “few of us appreciate that Kenneth Clark’s committee work constitutes a hidden legacy by virtue of which the arts have become a natural part of the life and success of the nation” [403]. The book brings to life this largely hidden and unglamorous work, which is arguably one of Clark’s greatest contributions, particularly in wartime and the postwar period.

Alan’s difficult relationship with his father is well-documented; and Kenneth Clark’s must have been a deep shadow to fight one’s way out of – but Alan Clark’s dismissive attitude also parallels a wider tendency over the years since his death to view Clark as representative of a kind of art- and cultural-history that has long been distinctly out of fashion. But the last decade or so has seen a more nuanced engagement with Kenneth Clark’s work: most recently, an exhibition at Tate Britain in 2014, with its accompanying catalogue; and the BBC’s forthcoming series, marking the 50th anniversary of Civilisation, this time reflecting a more inclusive ambition in the plural of its title, Civilisations, along with an associated festival in which cultural institutions are invited to participate. Thirdly, this new authorised biography has appeared, long overdue, providing a lively and engaging account of Clark’s life and work, drawing on private archives as well as the more accessible publicly held papers.

The sheer scale of the documentation of Clark’s committee work is one of the abiding impressions of his archive at Tate: how on earth did he fit it all in, one wonders [4]? The life of someone with the polymathic reach of Clark offers many such episodes to be explored in more detail – the National Gallery; the Ministry of Information, whose complex history presents challenges to the historian [178]; the Arts Council; the ITA and broadcasting more generally; the National Gallery, and his involvement with design policy and the nascent Council of Industrial Design, which was the subject of my own research. Histories of these institutions offer a slice of Clark one way, his own biography a slice another way, and at each of these intersections there is more detailed story to be explored. I found myself wanting more about many of these episodes, though the scale of the book could not permit such depth. Still, Stourton has done wonders in presenting all of these episodes woven into an engaging narrative and a thoughtful analysis, sprinkled liberally with insights into the man, his motives and his passions, public and private, and ultimately his enigma. It achieves this far better than Meryle Secrest’s biography, which was written with Clark’s authorisation (although he later regretted this [395]). Stourton’s analysis has the critical distance, perception and the right amount of admiration to create an account of Clark for our times.

The book makes the most of the rich range of archival sources scattered across Clark’s extensive contacts, including many unseen letters in private hands, which fill many gaps around the main Clark archive at Tate. Archives have their own biographies, and this reader, as an archivist (and indeed the cataloguer of Clark’s archive), naturally enjoyed the book’s awareness of its own methodologies, of the processes of the accretion of, and control of, archival evidence – for, as Michael Lynch has written, archives can be “as much products of historical struggle as they are primary sources for writing histories. The story of this archive (and the perils of an authorised biography written in the subject’s life) is told partly in one of the appendices to the book. (It’s good to see that the fruit of my labour, the “765-page catalogue”, at least gets a mention [407]).

Stourton characterises Clark’s life as compartmentalised, a theme that runs through the book: his intimate relationships with women, in particular, were kept separate from his home and work life, and his engagements in all these areas carefully controlled. He was “a master of disengagement” [4]. However, the Clark archive has a rather different character, particularly the files from Clark’s time as Director of the National Gallery, which were maintained by his Gallery secretary, and which included the whole range of his work beyond the gallery, and indeed had been taken home to form part of his own archive. This included some of his work on the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, the bulk of whose archive is now at the Imperial War Museum, but which contains little directly from Clark, though his presence is felt everywhere in those papers. The lines between these bodies of papers are blurred: the correspondence discussing a WAAC commission might also contain discussion of private social matters; this porousness is one of the reasons why Clark was so successful in the WAAC role, as in other areas of his life – mediating between civil servants, service personnel and artists, all of whom might have completely different sensibilities. Only a brief mention is given in the book to the indefatigable E.M. O’Rourke Dickey, Secretary of the Committee [192], who carried out the bulk of the onerous administrative work on which the Committee’s achievements were built.

In places, the book vividly evokes the character of Clark’s daily life, particularly in the Saltwood heyday of the 1950s and 1960s [290ff], when Clark enjoyed the patrician life in London, with all its freedoms, during the week, returning to the lordly comforts of ‘Salters’ at the weekend: those compartments again. Who would not envy the library in the great hall of the medieval castle, so large that he needed a small office in the tower adjacent, to focus his mind for writing purposes? What is harder to do, though Stourton makes an excellent attempt, is to pin down the elusive character of Clark – if indeed such a thing is even possible. The adjective “cold” is frequently used about Clark, by a number of those who knew him (Stourton himself describes Clark’s behaviour as “chilling” on one occasion: the finding of unopened letters after his death from Janet Stone, one of the most important relationships of his life). On the other hand, Roy Strong lamented that at Clark’s memorial service there was “no evocation of the warmth, charm and atmosphere that was the essence of the man” [402].

Stourton emphasises Clark’s unapologetic elitism, combined with the liberal values of that post-war age of optimism, best seen in his wish to bring art to the people. One of the fairest assessments of this aspect is that “although he was never a populist, he was a populariser” [411]. In his book One Hundred Details from Pictures in the National Gallery (1938) Clark claimed that “a democratic appreciation of art is not appreciation by the majority, but appreciation so distributed that in every part of society the few people who are capable of this form of spiritual activity can pursue it without the sense of loneliness or starvation”. Whatever we think of the suggestion that few people can appreciate art, on a more personal level the quotation is a reminder of the isolation of the small boy in Suffolk, assuaging his loneliness through art; and it is not a great leap to suggest that this might be the origin of Clark’s wish to bring those consolations to others. Indeed, a psychotherapeutic interpretation might be that through art he was able to feel. Powerful emotions sometimes overcame him in the face of ‘great’ works of art, or powerful audience reactions, as when he went to America to publicise Civilisation, where Stourton has him confessing to ‘bursting into tears’ twice on one page [354]. Stourton suggests that both the popular appeal of Clark’s television work, and the dismissive attitude of many more serious art historians, were due to the fact that his scholarship was expressed through “an idiosyncratic compound of elements that are highly personal…. [with] arresting generalisations leavened by knowledge and passionate engagement” [405]. This was perhaps a more radical and prescient approach than Clark has been given credit for, given that subjectivity is now a more accepted, and indeed engaging, televisual convention.

But Clark’s subjectivity was for him alone to mine. He criticised Meryl Secrest’s interest in psycho-analysis, and more particularly in his childhood and personal life [395]. He would generally prefer an artfully throwaway or self-deprecating comment to cover up anything remotely personal; he described his whole life as a “harmless confidence trick” [2]. There is always a performative aspect in his private correspondence as much as in his public persona, even with his most favoured ‘lady-friends’, such as Mary Kessell and Janet Stone. Kevin McMahon, reviewing the biography, picks up this point, saying that with Stone “Clark merely exchanges a public mask for an intimate mask”. Certainly Clark’s interactions with others (except perhaps Jane, though she has little chance to imprint her own personality on the volume) are often characterised by a deep self-consciousness, an introversion that may surprise today’s reader.

Mary Glasgow, the talented and capable Secretary-General of the early Arts Council and its predecessor the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), offers one of the most perceptive observations about Clark’s inherent contradiction: “he always seemed to me to be two people, each fighting the other” [223]. She captures his pendulum swing between the active and the contemplative life, never settled in one without feeling drawn back to the other: Stourton talks of his oscillation between engagement (public duty) and disengagement (private reflection and scholarship) [404], and suggests this tendency led to him not being taken seriously in either milieu. Arthur Lee’s (an early patron of Clark’s) observation that “unfortunately his connection with Art has tended to obscure in the minds of the powers that be that he is a man of great and natural administrative and business capacity” could work equally in the opposite direction: his administrative or televisual abilities prevented some from taking him seriously as an art historian.

Ultimately, this is a book written from the inside of the establishment of which Clark was part; it is comfortable in the elite social strata and institutions which produced Clark and which have tended to dominate British culture and society. Clark grumbles in later life about ‘pseudo-Marxists’, which seems to be a catch-all term for any kind of revisionist view of history. Stefan Collini identified two of Clark’s groups of detractors as “academics and social theorists on the left” [410]; more discussion of this aspect would have been useful. Without it, the book does not connect with more recent discourse about museums and representation, or even cultural history. Bearing this in mind, the book’s refrain that Clark was something of an outsider in his world (left-leaning and introverted, for example) does not entirely convince, because it is all relative to the world in which he operated. Clark’s sense of being an outsider seems more due to internal (psychological) than external (socio-cultural) factors. Still, such suggestions make him an intriguing subject; and this is a popular biography, not an academic text. The writing of this important account of Clark’s life presents the overview which will assist and facilitate the development of more detailed critical analyses of the many strands of Clark’s life and influence.



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