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Kenneth Clark: A Biography 
by Meryle Secrest.
Weidenfeld, 310 pp., £12.95, September 1984, 9780297783985
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I knew Kenneth Clark by sight some time before he spoke to me. It was in the late Fifties, I think, at the press view of an exhibition of 20th-century English painting, that words were exchanged. We must have got there very early, because no one else was in the gallery. I was standing in front of a big Pasmore and Clark was coming to look at it. Suddenly I thought: ‘My God, he’s going to speak to me!’ ‘Am I right in thinking you’re Robert Melville?’ he said. ‘My name is Clark.’ ‘Indisputably, Sir Kenneth,’ I answered. I remember the word I used, because as soon as I said it I realised that it was ludicrously inappropriate. And I went on quickly: ‘It’s a fine Pasmore, isn’t it?’ He agreed. Nothing else was said, and we went our separate ways. I found it a pleasing example of his desire to get in touch with the people whilst looking down at us from a great height. We had three or four more meetings of a similar kind, at long intervals. I relied on news of him as a man, rather than as an art historian of unequalled readability, from Sidney and Cynthia Nolan, who went quite frequently to Saltwood Castle.

On the cover of the recent paperback of Clark’s autobiographical Another Part of the Wood* there is a photograph of him as a little boy young enough to be in a frock, which was probably among the photographs he happened to look at through an old stereoscope, surprising himself into saying what a dear little fellow he had been. Quite astonishingly, it has the same lift of the head and the same appearance of arrogance as the Sutherland portrait of him in the National Portrait Gallery, reproduced on the cover of Meryle Secrest’s biography. Although Clark had enjoyed the sittings and told Sutherland that it was an honour to be painted by him, he was upset by the final likeness, which made him look ‘haughty and belligerent’. All the same, he knew that the look of haughtiness was inbuilt, and admitted to one of his female correspondents that there was a photograph of him taken when he was in his early twenties that showed signs of ‘callous insensitiveness’. He was a self-loather on principle; it did not reduce his sense of superiority.

Ms Secrest says that her biography of Clark is not ‘authorised’, which means that he never gave her written permission to quote directly from his letters and diaries. If she had been hoping that they would take her to a darker part of the wood, I think she would have been disappointed. The urbanity he so ruthlessly maintained in all circumstances would have made the idea of ‘letting himself go’ in a secret diary too sordid to be contemplated. I think the written permission was withheld because she did not have the intellectual stature to deal seriously with his handling of art history, which is his claim on posterity. He helped her in other ways, so probably found her attractive. He allowed her access to his files, enabling her to get many dates right without too much research, especially in connection with his administrative tasks. Not many people are likely to quarrel with the view she shares with countless others that he is the greatest lecturer on art we have ever had. He himself would have put in a word for Ruskin, but when Clark’s lectures were turned into books they became best-sellers, immeasurably extending his audience, and there is no doubt that he succeeded in taking the art of popularisation into the highest realms of art history.

When Ms Secrest was seeking material to take the place of the writings she was not permitted to use, she found that a veritable host of the Clarks’ friends and associates were eager to tell her what they knew, what they heard, what they saw. Even the three children of the Clarks did not mind talking to her. Their eldest son, Alan, was aware that both his parents tended to fantasise about the happy life they had made for their children. Alan was put into a very good school, and like most children of the higher bourgeoisie didn’t see much of his parents. If he had asked them to take him out of it because he was very unhappy there, they would have thought it very unmanly of him to complain, so it’s not altogether surprising that it was Alan Clark who drew Ms Secrest’s attention to a review by Christopher Booker of his father’s thoroughly disappointing second volume of autobiography, The Other Half. Booker wrote: ‘As the picture of a man who to the end has never dared face up to “the other half” of himself this is a spine-chilling book!’

The various recollections Ms Secrest has brought together do not pierce Clark’s urbanity, but a vivid portrait of his wife Jane emerges which subjects his urbanity to a piercing light. Even an anecdote like this makes its point: ‘Guests at table were not encouraged to ask for second helpings; on one occasion an American composer who had been served a truly superb English trifle was asked by his host in a terribly casual sort of way whether he would like a second helping, and eagerly assented. “Go ahead!” his host said tartly. “Take the lot.” ’

Clark owed his immense success partly to his brilliance as an administrator, much more to his genius as a lecturer, and not a little to his appropriately dazzling wife, who supported her animation and good looks with his wealth, to become one of London’s leading hostesses, and by making a close friend of Schiaparelli brought fantasy into her elegance to take the fashion world by storm. Colin Anderson recalled that in the Thirties Jane owned a pair of trousers ‘of emerald green velveteen with a row of large scarlet fly-buttons, not up the front, but creeping up behind, along the division between her buttocks’. In the same period, she wore a silk day-dress on a Mediterranean cruise, made from a fabric printed all over, for the first time ever, as newsprint. At Buckingham Palace on 28 March 1938, tiaras not being worn, she wore her robe déchirée, designed for Schiaparelli by Salvador Dali.

Very early in the marriage Jane had started to use a cocaine solution which was originally prescribed for sinusitis, but was brought into service as a tranquilliser, and she quickly became dependent upon it to calm her nervous headaches and her frequent fits of temper, usually brought on by her suspicion that her husband was with another woman when not with her. The family always referred to the cocaine as her ‘puffer’. Clark had the prescription analysed after her doctor was taken to court because another of his patients had died from an overdose. The puffer was found to contain an addictive dose of cocaine. She also kept gin in a beautiful set of painted bottles in her bathroom.

In 1954, Colin and Colette became aware that their mother had become even more dependent on alcohol than she had been on her puffer. This was the year in which she had her first fall from inebriation. For years she could begin the day with two to four martinis, follow it with a beaker of neat whisky, then go out to lunch under her own steam. So far, so good, but the rest of the day could be perilous. When she was sober she dominated the dinner table, full of grievances, half of them imaginary. Only Colin was not accused. Embarrassingly for him, he was never in the wrong. The atmosphere changed radically after her drinks began to take effect. She became soft-spoken and sentimental. And perhaps understandably Clark found life with her more bearable if she was drunk. In this state she would sometimes ‘scrawl wavering, semicoherent messages of love to her husband, thanking him for his goodness to her’. I think Ms Secrest must have been told this by Violette Verdy, the French prima ballerina, married to Colin, who found Jane’s unhappiness so moving that she wanted to protect her from everyone.

Jane could be fantastically rude to people who might be a threat of some kind to her life with Clark. She was against him making the TV series called Civilisation, partly because she feared it would take him too often and too far from her side, partly because it began to look as if her very important husband would be subordinate to the director, Michael Gill. She was still making it clear that she was contemptuous of the project even after the filming had started. Michael Gill and his co-producer, Peter Montagnon, have painful memories of a luncheon they and their team were given when they did some filming at Saltwood. Jane announced loudly that the Queen Mother had lunched there the week before and left a handsome tip for the servants, so the price of lunch for the BBC team would be £20. No one could come up with the cash and Montagnon asked if a cheque would be acceptable. Clark supported his wife’s demand by saying: ‘Yes, that’s all right!’ Jane remained contemptuous. ‘You’d better be careful, K,’ she said, ‘it might bounce.’

‘Oh, but it was so public!’ someone said. ‘At Covent Garden one could see her swaying in her box.’ And someone else saw her being picked up off the pavement outside the Arts Council. At a French Embassy party Lady Gladwyn saw her sink to the floor. Clark was there with his daughter and said: ‘Mamma’s fallen down.’ They both laughed a little, presumably to hide their embarrassment, a state of mind with which Clark must have been familiar since Jane was said to have fallen down at most of the embassies in London. The French Ambassador’s wife said: ‘I can understand people getting drunk at a party – but to arrive that way!’ If he felt humiliated on such occasions he never betrayed a sign of it. What he didn’t seem to realise was that night after night he was subjecting his wife to the mockery of the class to which they belonged.

The list of accidents that followed her first fall in 1954, when she broke an arm, make macabre reading when brought together on a couple of pages. Coming to them on pages 238 and 239, I was reminded of that slow execution recounted in Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, of a Chinese runner by four Japanese soldiers who spent a pleasant half hour kicking him to death. At intervals from 1954 she cut her head on a marble table, broke a rib, broke a wrist, twisted an ankle, blacked an eye, fell down some stone steps at Saltwood and lay there for half an hour before anyone noticed, and some time later fell down the same stone steps when her chin was badly cut and a hand damaged.

From time to time, one of Clark’s women friends would be singled out for his special attention and Jane invariably discovered her name. One was Mary Kessell, who seems to have been his mistress for 12 years and even became a friend of the family, much loved by the young ones. Later it was Janet Stone, who was not exactly his lover but was still in loving correspondence with him after Jane’s death. Jane came across a telephone bill in which a lot of calls to Litton Cheney in Dorset were listed. That was where Janet Stone lived. The telephone bill led to a fall in the bathroom.

He was always worried about leaving her but she was actually much better when he wasn’t there. Alone, she drank less and coped far better with life. But whenever Clark returned ‘he might be seen next morning on his way to his wife’s room with her first drink of the day in his hand. Whether she needed it or not, she was not likely to turn it down.’

I begin to wonder whether Meryle Secrest is taking her revenge for being denied written permission to quote from Clark’s private papers.

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