'Kenneth Clark' tells the enviable story of a life of high culture

Britain's champion of fine art was the son of a manufacturing family who wound up explaining high culture to his fellow countrymen.

Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation By James Stourton Knopf 496 pp.

With the title of his 1990 book "Our Age," Noel Annan gave a name to a tight-knit group of elite dons, politicians, and writers who dominated Britain in the 20th century. Born around the time of World War I, these mandarins fought in World War II, then lived through the dissolution of the British Empire, the transformation of Britain’s class structure under Labour socialism, and the revolution in culture and mores during the 1960s. The response of the protagonists of "Our Age" to all these challenges was liberal and admirable. Rather than fight a rear-guard action against progress, they tried to guide the institutions they led – from Oxford and Cambridge to the BBC and the House of Lords – into a new, democratic era. They believed passionately in meritocracy – some of them were born rich and noble, but others earned their high places through intelligence and hard work – and they were evangelical about the power of education and culture.

If you had to name a single man – for they were all men – who encapsulated the spirit of “Our Age,” other than Annan himself, you could do no better than Kenneth Clark. Clark, who lived from 1903 to 1983, has receded far enough into the past that he no longer casts much of a shadow, particularly in America. Some readers who pick up James Stourton’s comprehensive and sympathetic new biography, Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and "Civilisation,” will remember him for his greatest achievement, the 13-part BBC series "Civilisation." Others may have encountered Clark’s popular books on art history, such as "The Nude."

But as Stourton shows, Clark was capable of even more than he achieved. His failure to become a world-class scholar and art historian is the great question mark hanging over his story. Instead, Clark’s energies were poured into public and administrative tasks, which brought him honor and a peerage during his lifetime but hold little interest for posterity. Indeed, in the mid-20th century, there was hardly a cultural institution in England that Clark did not lead or help to lead. At various times, he was in charge of the National Gallery, the Arts Council, the National Theater, and the Independent Television Authority. He was a regular on the BBC radio program "The Brains Trust" and a prolific presenter of highbrow TV shows, of which "Civilisation" was only the most famous. What united all these endeavors was his belief in “the best for the most,” a slogan that serves Stourton as a chapter title. Clark firmly believed that high culture should be open to everyone, without being trivialized or dumbed down.

In part, Clark came to this conviction through the power of richesse oblige. Though he ended life as a lord – “Lord Clark of Civilisation,” he was jokingly called – he was not born into the aristocracy. Rather, he was the descendant of a Scottish manufacturing family that became tremendously wealthy during the Industrial Revolution in the production of cotton thread. This means, of course, that the Clark fortune was founded on slavery, since it was American slaves who produced the cheap cotton exported to England. Stourton doesn’t discuss this, but it is a useful fact to keep in the background of Clark’s story, proving that, as Walter Benjamin wrote, “there is no document of civilization [or in this case, "Civilisation"] that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

Rich, handsome, and brilliant, with a passionate susceptibility to painting and sculpture, the young Clark had a talent for winning the encouragement of powerful men. At Oxford, he was a protégé of the witty, influential don Maurice Bowra. After university, he became an assistant to Bernard Berenson, the world’s leading authority on Renaissance art. At the age of 27 he was put in charge of fine art at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, and three years later he was lured away to become director of the National Gallery in London. But the most dramatic moment in his rise came in 1934, when King George V came in person to the National Gallery to implore Clark to become surveyor of the king’s pictures. Stourton’s book opens with this scene, “the first time a reigning monarch had visited the gallery,” and a dramatic tribute to Clark’s desirability. When it came to art, he was the man everyone wanted.

In private life, too, Clark had the power to seduce. He was married early to Jane Martin, a fashionable and charismatic woman, and together they enjoyed great social success. Clark’s family money fueled a grand lifestyle in mansions full of masterpieces old and new, where the guests included show business people like Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, artists like Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore, dukes and duchesses, even the king and queen. As Stourton shows, candidly but without judgment, Clark’s charm soon overflowed the bounds of his marriage, and he ended up conducting a long series of romances with other women. Some of these were probably platonic, like his flirtation with the (also married) American millionaire Jayne Wrightsman, while others were sexual. But they all took a heavy toll on Jane, who became an alcoholic. Clark’s allegiance to her, even as she became ferociously unpleasant, was much wondered at by his friends, but it makes sense as an expression of both loyalty and guilt.

In public life, however, Clark – known to all as “K” – went from strength to strength. He did not fight in World War II, but he did a double service to England as director of the National Gallery in wartime. First, as Stourton details, he managed the evacuation of the museum’s priceless collection to a bomb shelter in Wales. Second, he opened the now-empty gallery to the public for a series of lunchtime concerts, which became hugely popular and served as a symbol of cultural resistance to Nazism. After the war, he left the gallery but continued to serve the nation in many capacities – so many that they become a bit of a blur, especially to the American reader who is not familiar with the intricacies of British broadcasting or the work of the Arts Council. In addition, he became a celebrity, the public face of high culture, thanks to his TV programs, culminating in "Civilisation" in 1969.

Most people who get biographies written about them – statesmen, artists – are important but unhappy. Clark had his share of unhappiness, Stourton shows – about his marriage, his children, the tug-of-war between public responsibilities and scholarly pursuits. But on the whole his seems like a very enviable life, pleasant to read about, pleasant to have lived. He enjoyed the high life but escaped its insipidity; he did good for millions and helped art and culture to thrive. Reading "Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and 'Civilisation'” you can only wish that our own billionaires were as conscientious.

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