Blame it on his social life

Nicholas Penny

  • Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and ‘Civilisation’ by James Stourton
    William Collins, 478 pp, £30.00, September 2016, ISBN 978 0 00 749341 8

Each and every place in the life of Kenneth Clark has been investigated by James Stourton, from the country house in Suffolk where, as a boy, Clark judged the dresses of female dinner guests, to the château in Normandy belonging to his second wife, Nolwen, where, in his later years, he tried to find ways to communicate with the lovers who had once hoped he would marry them. Stourton is particularly informative about Clark as a schoolboy at Winchester and about his relations with television directors and crews, but he has also discovered new information about Clark’s work at I Tatti, at the Ashmolean, at the National Gallery, at Windsor Castle, for Covent Garden and for the cause of conservation; he documents committees attended and lecture tours undertaken, books written and unwritten, houses bought and sold, acts of charity discreetly performed and romances secretly conducted. Even if we take into account the services of secretaries, chauffeurs and cooks, it is hard to understand how Clark contrived to achieve so much. Stourton has expertly reconstructed the kaleidoscopic variety, and defined with precision the numerous paradoxes, of Clark’s public and private lives.

Early in 1949, when he was 45, he set out on the long voyage to Australia, beckoned by the National Gallery of Victoria, which he had advised, and by Joseph Burke of Melbourne University, who believed that Clark would stimulate cultural interests in his compatriots. Clark wrote a contrite and affectionate note to his first wife, Jane, assuring her that there would be no more ‘silly fits’. This curious phrase must, as Stourton supposes, allude to his infidelities. The risk would have been great, even had Clark been travelling by plane. Soon after posting the letter he began an affair with Barbara Desborough. Later, he was mentioned in her divorce proceedings and she came to London to be near her lover. Mutual friends had to sprinkle cold water on her optimistic ardour.

Stourton deals briskly with the plight of Barbara, about whom we learn little more than that she had red hair and freckles. Nor does he dwell for long on the divorced art dealer and decorator in Hythe, an ‘opinionated glamorous redhead’, who was ‘not inclined to go quietly’. And we wonder in vain what fate befell the ‘very pretty housemaid’ in Portland Place two hundred pages earlier. When he does give more detail, as when quoting from a dignified letter written by the artist Mary Kessell, it makes painful reading. Clark may have worried about these broken hearts and dashed hopes, but if so the evidence seems to have vanished.

A major source for Stourton is Clark’s letters to Janet Stone, wife of the wood engraver Lawrence Stone, kept under embargo in the Bodleian but available to Stourton in the form of transcripts made before they were consigned to the library. Clark’s true feelings are more likely to be found here than anywhere else. Stourton admits to a shudder on discovering that Clark didn’t always bother to open Stone’s letters; but his shudders are rare. He is not only judiciously uncensorious but free from the biographer’s delusion of omniscience, which, given the complex character of his subject, is just as well. (Clark’s face in the photograph on the cover is suggestive of both a mask and the discomfort involved in keeping it in place.)

Stourton recognises that, however much Clark made Jane suffer, and however much she returned the favour, he owed much to her – and not merely in the early years of their marriage. Clark knew no greater pleasure than that of acquiring works of art and displaying them in his numerous homes, and it is clear they shared this passion. Stourton’s biography was written with the family’s approval, but it is the author’s own open mind and generous intelligence that lead him to this conclusion. There do, however, remain two unsolved domestic mysteries which bookend Clark’s life.

The first of these concerns Clark’s father. The fact that he owned paintings, enjoyed the company of artists, and encouraged his son to collect was acknowledged by Clark himself. Stourton notes that he owned work by Millais and Corot but he is portrayed as a hearty philistine whose true interests consisted in yachts, shooting, golf and bridge. In the photograph Stourton captions as ‘Clark’s raffish and boozy father’ he resembles the seedy proprietor of a Wild West saloon. Yet on close scrutiny we see that the walls behind him are covered with framed pictures; there is a painting of a woman, in ancient Roman attire, rather in the style of Poynter, on an easel beside him; and, on his other side, a sculpture of a floating, veiled female figure, reminiscent of the neo-baroque of North Italian cemeteries; there are Japanese ceramics on the chimney piece, and a Roman bust high above the mirror. Surely he was an art lover, or wished to be thought of as one, but he was devoted to art that Clark’s friends Berenson, Duveen and Fry would have deplored or despised. More about his collection and what happened to it would have been welcome.

And then there is the first-born son, Alan Clark, the military historian and Tory politician. To find this ferocious attack dog prowling in the castle where once the author of Civilisation delivered his ‘credo’ and paused to pat, with pensive benevolence, a sculpture of a mother and child by Henry Moore is truly alarming. Stourton doesn’t conceal the loathing Alan expressed for his father in his diaries. But how to explain it? Perhaps it is as mysterious as the true motives of this avowed enemy of political correctness, whose confessions have done so much to make candour disreputable.

Stourton dwells on the choices which, he believes, changed his subject’s life. Having published a scholarly catalogue of Leonardo’s drawings in the Royal Collection, Clark decided to abandon work of this kind – the shuffling of photographs, the checking of notes, the focus on minute particulars. He did so because he valued more highly the panoramic view of the great German writers on art, Burckhardt, Riegl, Wöllflin and Warburg. He also retained an unfashionable admiration for Ruskin and deeply appreciated the essays of Pater – in particular, ‘The School of Giorgione’, which deliberately disregarded art historical scholarship in this field. The change of direction meant abandoning the example and the training Berenson had provided, but a part of Berenson yearned to do the same: one of his original ambitions had been to imitate Pater, and he too aspired to write a ‘great book’.

Clark wrote at least two art historical masterpieces: a monograph on Leonardo da Vinci, published in 1939, and The Nude, in 1956, the finest works of their kind in the English language. We know from Stourton that there was also a larger book, a sort of sister to The Nude, tracing major motifs in art from their ancient origins, which Clark didn’t succeed in writing; he could never adequately explain the reason for this failure. It may have had more to do with his social life and the pleasures of collecting art than he allowed; suggesting as much would have seemed ungallant since these were pleasures he shared with Jane.

Nicholas Penny on The Nude

Clark himself declared that, by accepting the post of keeper of fine art at the Ashmolean Museum in 1931, he had taken a wrong turning because ‘administration would prevent me from writing the great books I already had in mind.’ In fact, as he admitted, the job at the museum left him ‘with plenty of spare time’. Berenson, who remained a mentor, warned Clark that he would be fixed down ‘in the world of collectors, curators and dons’, but the obstructions to creative and critical reflection arising from obligations to the university and the museum were surely fewer than those caused by the incessant dinners that he and his glamorous wife gave for grand and smart people. After accepting the directorship of the National Gallery three years later, Clark affected to deplore his fate; ‘in the intervals of being a manager of a large department store,’ he wrote to Berenson, ‘I shall have to be a professional entertainer to the landed and official classes.’ Was he perhaps trying to conceal from his friends and indeed from himself the fact that the true wrong turning had been his marriage?

No manager of a department store would have taken as little interest in the operation’s finances as Clark did in those of the National Gallery – to the indignation of the public accounts committee. And such a manager would surely have given more attention to the needs and concerns of his colleagues, especially the curators who quickly demonised Clark as the darling of the gallery’s tyrannical trustees. Clark’s style of directorship differed greatly from those of his predecessors, not only in the National Gallery but in any London institution. In many respects his qualities and outlook correspond to what is expected in museum directors today. He was an effective ambassador, well connected internationally, comfortable and confident in the company of the very powerful (of both parties) and the very rich (notably Gulbenkian, whose collection he very nearly obtained for the National Gallery). He was an impresario, happy to be organising loan exhibitions long before such events came to be regarded as indispensable, and was concerned to secure publicity for the gallery and to satisfy public expectations with the services it provided.

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What kept Clark busiest were activities of his own devising rather than the duties imposed by his trustees or government officials (there was then no Department for Culture, Media and Sport), activities that originated in impulsive personal decisions and were usually implemented with minimal bureaucratic intervention. There was little difference between Clark’s personal philanthropy and his most effective acts of public service: little difference between the loans and other forms of financial assistance he provided for half a dozen struggling artists and his decision to start the War Artists scheme, which was accepted promptly by the Treasury and adopted by the Ministry of Information; little difference between his letters of support for refugee artists and art historians and his employment in the National Gallery of a refugee conservator. On the private side, there is the huge donation of works by modern British artists that he and his wife made to the Contemporary Arts Society for distribution to regional and Commonwealth galleries, and on the public side the phone call to the chairman of the Pilgrim Trust which set in motion the establishment of the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (the future Arts Council). Myra Hess cautiously proposed an occasional concert in the evacuated galleries in Trafalgar Square; Clark immediately responded that such events should take place daily. It is true that he hesitated a little before allowing the young art dealer Lillian Browse to mount exhibitions of modern British art elsewhere in the gallery, but no committee would have hesitated to turn her down.

Serving as director of the National Gallery was not then incompatible with writing a ‘great book’ and during the war, when the gallery was empty, Clark could have applied himself even more easily to such work. He made it difficult for himself not only by initiating and administering many of the activities just mentioned but by an ever increasing desire to reach a larger public and to popularise (which is not the same as populism, as Stourton and some of the authorities he quotes seem to suppose). There was an element of popularisation in Clark’s published work, including Leonardo da Vinci and The Nude: in both books much that was heavy or opaque in his sources is lightened and illuminated not by simplification but by an astonishing lucidity of exposition. The temptation to simplify was, however, hard to resist, especially in lectures, and so was glib generalisation. Successful mass communication is also often conditional on telling people what they want to hear, or at least avoiding anything that would make them uncomfortable, and this is a serious flaw in much of his work for television, including the hugely successful series Civilisation. Stourton, although he acknowledges the dissenters, is clearly convinced that Clark was right to take this course; Clark himself was not so sure.

Like Ruskin he gave great attention to visual aids in his lectures, and Stourton reminds us that Clark more or less invented the photographic detail as a form of art historical illustration. Details of this kind, taken from paintings in the National Gallery, provided an unprecedented education in looking. The opening of Chapter 8 of The Nude, which was written with the lecture room in mind, gives us a good idea of the visual drama Clark relished. His opening words would be delivered in a darkened hall: ‘Roots and bulbs, pulled up into the light, give us for a moment the feeling of shame … They have the formless character of life which has been both protected and oppressed.’ Then the slide: a detail of nude figures in Rogier van der Weyden’s Last Judgment with its ‘bulb-like women and root-like men’. The use of words and silence together with images would be a feature of many superb passages in Civilisation. His best writing had often owed much to the lecture hall, but the book based on the script for Civilisation exposed the limitations of that text. Nevertheless for many thousands it remained a precious relic of the affable and urbane embodiment of culture who had spoken to them with such disarming familiarity.

Clark admitted that he liked ‘being a film star’, but before long an aversion to mass adoration set in and may indeed have been a partial motive for the writing of the superb autobiography which certainly bewildered many of his fans. Among the most memorable passages is his description of a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1970 when he walked down John Russell Pope’s majestic central hall, the last great classical building in the Western world, with the galleries on either side ‘crammed full of people who stood up and roared at me, waving their hands and stretching them out towards me’. He was overcome with emotion. ‘I thought: “What do I feel like? I feel like some visitor to a plague-stricken country, who has been mistaken for a doctor.”’ The truth was that he had volunteered for this very mission.

Until this moment nothing in Clark’s life had disturbed him as much as a row that took place in 1937 when he was director of the National Gallery. It was a sudden revelation of how much he was disliked by colleagues and associates in the London art world: those who felt he had cut them or ignored them, those who were envious of his privileged background and private means and suspicious of the higher ranks of society in which he moved, those whose talents he overshadowed. The row arose when Clark, against the advice of the gallery’s curators, urged the trustees to purchase some small paintings he believed might be by Giorgione. This is easily misinterpreted as a battle between expert connoisseurs and a recklessly overconfident wealthy dilettante, but Clark’s senior curatorial opponent inside the gallery, Martin Davies, and his chief enemy outside it, Charles Bell (who regarded Clark as a protégé who had betrayed him), were deeply distrustful of visual analysis, and their ideal of art historical scholarship consigned connoisseurship to a marginal position. There was one great connoisseur in the National Gallery: Philip Pouncey, the most junior of the curators, who had been appointed by Clark himself. Pouncey recognised that the paintings were by Andrea Previtali, a minor artist who had been a pupil of Giovanni Bellini. Clark’s mistake would have been averted by some patient Berensonian work in the photographic library as well as by a recognition that the impulsive manner in which he bought for his own collection was not appropriate when making acquisitions for a public institution.

The episode must have done much to make the wider public and the public outside the London art world – in the regions, in Australia, in the United States – seem more appealing. Might it also have precipitated a compensatory need for female adoration and the womanising that developed soon afterwards but is traced in a separate chapter by Stourton? Perhaps it also drove him closer to the artists he and his wife befriended, among whom Henry Moore was the most important and the one whose art was most affected by this friendship. It was surely Clark who helped Moore to revisit Greek sculpture with his ‘fallen warriors’ in the 1950s.

In his autobiography Clark generously commends the achievements of his old enemy Martin Davies, admitting that his ‘relentless pursuit of the truth’ resulted in catalogues which, ‘by their thoroughness, no less than their austerity, raised the standard of cataloguing in every country’. But his description of Davies, ‘thin and colourless as a ghost’, consulting reference books in a dark, damp Welsh cottage and proceeding to the slate mines with a torch, the better to record the ailments of the Old Masters stacked up there, recalls the desiccated Mr Casaubon with his ‘plodding application’ and his ‘rows of dustgathering notebooks’, labouring in ‘those accustomed vaults where he walked taper in hand’. In a letter to Janet Stone, Clark describes his revulsion at the sight in the book stacks of the Warburg Institute of ‘wraith-like figures’ silently turning the pages of books on iconography; they seem to him like ‘ghosts in a Hades of futility’. He also seems to have developed a conviction that he was disliked and his work disparaged by the staff of the Courtauld Institute. To recognise the tragic dimension of this, it is essential to recall how much Clark had done for both institutions: without his support Fritz Saxl would not have succeeded in bringing the Warburg Institute to London, and Johannes Wilde would never have come to the Courtauld Institute, where he was deputy director under Blunt and transformed the scholarly understanding of Venetian Renaissance art in this country.

A passage in his autobiography asks:

What is Civilisation? I have often refused to answer that question, but will answer it now. It was lunching with George Salles. The greenish light coming up from the Seine, filtered through the leaves of the Quai, and gave to everything and everyone in his rooms a unity of tone. The walls of his sitting-room were lined with books to the ceilings. The pictures, as is usual with French amateurs, were on easels – examples of Matisse and Picasso chosen with perfect discrimination, and a superb late Renoir. On the tables were Maya carvings and Islamic pots, and there was a splendid mask from the Torres Straits.

Almost all of the art here specified belongs to categories not covered by the television series and consequently supposed to have been neglected or underrated by him. The breadth of Clark’s sympathies – the excitement over aboriginal painting in Australia that he optimistically relayed to Berenson, his appreciation of the ‘Dionysiac’ Jackson Pollock and his support for the Whitechapel Gallery – would never be suspected from the photographs of his Hampstead home with the blonde nude by Renoir and his great Seurat landscape amid cut flowers, silk lampshades, Chinese vases and satinwood commodes. He was just about the only serious collector and supporter of modern art who was equally attracted by old things: medieval manuscript illuminations, Renaissance bronzes and ceramics, Chinese sculpture. Clark’s enthusiasms, whether for the earliest work by Victor Pasmore or the young Lucian Freud, were never influenced in the slightest by that fear of being slow to greet the latest fashion which has guaranteed academic support for all new brands of contemporary art in recent decades. He was unusual also in believing that the merits of modern art should be debated. Stourton describes the episode in 1935 when Clark caused offence by an article in the Listener expressing doubts about the future of abstraction. He also gives special attention to the film Clark made for ATV on the occasion of the Tate’s Picasso exhibition in 1960 where he gave full expression to his admiration mingled with alarm.