When People Wanted Civilisation: Reassessing Kenneth Clark

By Kevin McMahonJanuary 7, 2017

When People Wanted Civilisation: Reassessing Kenneth Clark

Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation by James Stourton

JAMES STOURTON’S Kenneth Clark is a biography of a civil servant. Clark wouldn’t have minded. After all, in his 1969 Civilisation TV miniseries (Ci-vi-li-SA-tion not Ci-vi-li-ZA-tion), he himself quipped that French Classical architecture “was the work not of craftsmen, but of wonderfully gifted civil servants.”

The civil servant known as Lord Clark of Saltwood has gained unexpected relevance in the era of Brexit and President-elect Odoacer. An impeccably credentialed conservative English aristocrat, Clark devoted most of his life, in person and behind the scenes, to making European cultural heritage comprehensible and interesting to the general public. He was part of a generation of public educators born just before World War I, which also included Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin books; Nikolaus Pevsner of the guide books; and E. H. Gombrich of the still-ubiquitous art history book.

Stourton doesn’t ignore the more colorful elements of Clark’s life, like his upbringing by mismatched eccentrics — eccentric even compared with other Edwardian millionaires — his career as art historian, patron, and collector; his life as a philandering celebrity in ’30s London; or his ubiquitous TV presence in the ’70s. But Stourton’s book really comes alive when discussing Clark’s public service, beginning in 1931 as Keeper of Fine Art at the Ashmolean Museum, his appointment as Director of the National Gallery in 1933, and, that same year, as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures.

This last was an honor Clark originally declined, until he was recruited in person by George V, during the first visit by a sovereign to the National Gallery. This visit so fascinates Stourton the he makes it the first scene of his book. Rightly so. It is — iconographically speaking — an emblem in which we see Clark’s most significant attributes: the authority and deference he was able to command even before accomplishing anything to merit it (he was 30 years old at the time). The visit was also an early demonstration of Clark’s awareness of publicity: he stage-managed it to make sure the press and photographers had unobstructed sight lines. And then there’s the touch of absurdity, the characteristic flavor of interwar British high life. When Clark led the King past works by England’s greatest painter (Clark’s lifelong conviction), George V exclaimed, “Turner was mad.” (In his memoir, Clark added the King’s annihilating final word: “My grandmother always said so.”)

It’s a delicious moment, but books about interwar Britain always run the risk of becoming anthologies of aristocratic howlers. The task of the biographer wading into this terrain consists largely of scaling the Himalayan mountain range of memoirs, diaries, and letters of interwar literati like Harold Acton, Cecil Beaton, Lord Berners, Cyril Connolly, the Mitfords, Harold Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf, the Bloomsbury Set, not to mention the novels of Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh, et al. These have covered the ground so articulately, with such nuance and malice-fueled acuity, that later writers struggle to be heard. Stourton succeeds in making himself audible above this chatter by spinning adventure yarns out of Clark the administrator and indefatigable committee-joiner.

To do so, Stourton makes effective use of the available resources, especially Clark’s 1974 memoir Another Part of the Wood, a minor masterpiece of the Empire’s Twilight style — a snapshot of the vanished beau monde with glamorous names, plus a deflating pinprick punch line to vaccinate against criticism. (John le Carré employs this style with panache in his recent memoir The Pigeon Tunnel.)

And so the first third of Stourton’s book is a summary of Another Part. As reading matter, it suffers by comparison. Moreover, Stourton fails to give Clark’s father, mother, or wife Jane independent voices. He also omits Clark’s description of Mary Berenson enraging Edmund Gosse with a gaga account of how, years earlier, Gosse had pushed her through the larder window of Walt Whitman’s house in Camden so that they could meet the American poet. It’s the great set piece of Clark’s memoir, and the funniest thing the elegant stylist ever wrote. And it’s also characteristic of the way Clark describes people in terms of their performances. He presents everyone as actors putting on a show, playing the parts of C. F. Bell, Bernard Berenson, Maurice Bowra, David Crawford, Henry Moore, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, and the rest.

But exactly where Another Part itself starts to lose steam, Stourton’s biography comes alive.

One reason Stourton succeeds in making Clark’s public activities interesting is that he was able to quote Clark’s intimate correspondence with Janet Stone from the 1930s through the ’70s. Their romantic relationship seems to have been largely epistolary, with Janet cast as confidante, as in a 17th-century French drama. Some of Clark’s letters demonstrate astonishing callousness, which Stourton tops up by noting that, after his death, his secretary found a “large box” of Janet’s letters that he had never even bothered to open.

Stourton puts these documents to use, providing a catty running commentary on Clark’s public activities at the Ministry of Information during World War II, the War Artists Advisory Committee, the committees that created the Arts Council, the Royal Opera, the Royal Ballet, and on independent TV in Britain, et cetera. All the same, it’s hard to characterize Clark’s letters to Stone as candid. The lordliness — he was a lord, after all — is never really dropped. Clark merely exchanges a public mask for an intimate mask.

Clark polished his public mask at the podium. He was an immensely popular lecturer, but not to everyone’s taste. Nikolaus Pevsner detected “an arrogance for which I could box his ears,” and fumed at Clark’s “blasé jokes […] to make the students laugh.” The semi-unstudied outrageous gag was Clark’s preferred mode of jolting people awake, and was deployed effectively in Civilisation. Stourton notes the revealing fact that Clark never took questions while lecturing.

One on one, Clark could be charming, when he felt it necessary. He was often gracious with public antagonists, like Herbert Read, Reyner Banham, and John Berger — whom he proposed as a more suitable host for Civilisation. Stourton records how disappointed Clark was that his 1958 TV debate with Berger on Picasso’s Guernica turned out so “polite”; a rousing argument would have been more entertaining TV.

Clark had a wide circle of friends who valued his company, but all noted his fundamental isolation. Henry Moore spoke of the “glass wall” surrounding him. He accepted the sexism of his time and place without question, which marred his scholarly work and damaged the women who tried to connect with him. John Piper observed that “Clark used women to protect himself from women.”

The public mask was put to good use during Clark’s years at the National Gallery. Stourton reminds us how different things used to be in museums. Many of the activities we take for granted were innovations introduced by people like Clark. One of his first acts as director was to hire a PR firm. He commissioned audience surveys and scrutinized attendance figures. Before Clark arrived, the National Gallery had started charging admission four days a week, in order to keep attendance down (for the convenience of the copyists working in the gallery, apparently). Clark advocated removing accumulated varnish and dirt from pictures, and was viciously attacked for it.

Stourton’s chapters on Clark’s activities during World War II are the high point of the book. He gives a better account than Clark himself.

One of Clark’s most astonishing accomplishments was to evacuate 1,800 pictures — the cream of the National Gallery’s collection — to underground storage in Wales the day before war was declared. With the National Gallery empty, Clark instituted hugely popular, morale-boosting programs: lunchtime concerts, previously unthinkable temporary exhibitions of war artists and contemporary art, and a “Picture of the Month” series, featuring a single painting brought back from storage.

Clark’s subsequent work at the Ministry of Information — which he characterized as worthless — put Clark in touch with the movie industry and led him into public education (“propaganda,” if you prefer), shaping his postwar career. No wonder Jane Clark — providing perhaps the best aristocratic howler of the book — argued that duty on a minesweeper seemed more attractive, because it “gives one lots of time for reading.”

Stourton also notes how by 1941, Jane had taken on a lover of her own, William Walton, while struggling to keep up appearances at the Clark estate in Gloucestershire, Upton House. This allows Stourton to include a memorable cameo by the cook, Mrs. Nelson, who was not only the ex-dancing partner of Jane Avril of Toulouse-Lautrec fame but claimed that her daughter had been fathered by composer Edward Elgar.

After this Put Out More Flags period, Clark became involved in the War Artists Advisory Committee, which was certainly more agreeable work, and arguably more consequential. The main goal of the War Artists Advisory Committee — for Clark, if not for their public proclamations about documenting the struggle — was to keep artists out of harm’s way. It didn’t entirely succeed; Eric Ravilious, for one, was killed on assignment. But it did underwrite the most memorable visual expression of the Blitz, Henry Moore’s Tube Shelter drawings. (His sketchbook is at the British Museum, the gift of Jane Clark.)

This raises the issue of Clark’s relationship to the art of his time. Stourton declares that what led him to write on Clark was the man’s “focus and complete absorption in art at a time when — artists aside — this was a singular quality.” Aestheticism was far from an aristocratic reflex in the ’20s; in fact, it constituted rebellion.

But unlike his more uninhibited peers, like Harold Acton, Lord Berners, or Herbert Read, Clark never overcame his initial distrust of modernism. Some of his remarks about abstract art are pure Bertie Wooster. This has made him seem a reactionary booby. And yet he wrote perceptively and movingly about his discoveries of Mondrian, Pollock, and Rothko, and even expressed qualified approval of Roy Lichtenstein. His valedictory exhibition at the National Gallery was a Paul Klee retrospective (seven months after VE Day), and he collected Ben Nicolson while scuffling with him in the press. While his reservations might be unfounded, his conscientiousness in voicing them seems singularly honorable.

The living (British) artists he supported — Moore, Piper, Sutherland — are not leading figures of blue chip international modernist triumphalism. But as that narrative frays and fractures, their provincialism seems a strength, as well as their geniality and humanism — discredited echt-Clarkian epithets!

Stourton provides a plausible summary of Clark’s art historical approach: a synthesis of Bernard Berenson’s connoisseurship, Roger Fry’s formalism, John Ruskin’s moralism, Walter Pater’s word-painting, Aby Warburg’s iconography, and Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois Riegl’s sense of the broader cultural movements embodied in styles. But he accepts Clark’s art historical writings at face value, and offers no new perspectives. That’s a shame, because Clark’s books — especially the genre diptych Landscape into Art (1949) and The Nude (1955) — remain rewarding, despite their unfashionable idiom. Landscape is full of helpful rules of thumb for appreciating specific painters (e.g., on Poussin: “if any upright line inclines slightly from the vertical, we may be sure to find another slightly off the horizontal which is at right angles to it”). And while The Nude has been hacked to bits by feminists, with justification, it also includes a stimulating running commentary on antique Greek sculpture playing contrapuntally with a subversive diatribe against “those blockish parodies, the oldest and grubbiest inhabitants of any cast-room” upon which modern knowledge of the antique sculpture is based. This is only one expression of Clark’s conviction that certain aspects of the past might be inaccessible.

Stourton does a better job when tackling the production and reception of the Civilisation series. He points out that the much-mocked talking head format for art documentaries had already been creatively subverted years earlier in the BBC’s own Monitor series, which included Ken Russell’s daring Elgar (1962) and completely bonkers The Debussy Film (1965). As soon as Clark finished the first drafts of the scripts in 1967, he began sparring with the producer, Michael Gill, whom he described to Janet Stone as “an ectoplasmic emanation from the New Statesman correspondence columns.” The tension dissipated, however, when Clark realized that Gill was not trying to reform him ideologically, but, on the contrary, to create a less (bogusly) objective and more personal form of documentary, with Clark’s idiosyncratic voice at its heart.

Now a team, their priorities became clear. Accepting an award in 1970, Clark the showman insisted, “[W]e never for a moment thought about educating people. We simply hoped to entertain them [and] kindle their enthusiasm.” Clark adapted his public lecture style. Episodes could contain only a handful of works and names, “and what is said about them must usually be said without qualification. Generalizations are inevitable and, in order not to be boring, must be slightly risky.” Clark admitted privately that the series was “a kind of autobiography disguised as a summary of Western Civilization.” And that was exactly what Gill had wanted, to subvert the omniscient expert with a human being, whose quirkiness and partisanship were center stage.

Civilisation was wildly popular in the United Kingdom and in the United States. The show made Clark a star. The media frenzy and public acclaim Clark received in Washington, DC, moved and rather frightened him. Naturally, Clark’s voice and bearing also made him a punching-bag for anti-establishment rage. A Monty Python episode from 1973 features “Boxing Tonight: Jack Bodell v. Sir Kenneth Clark.”

Fifty years on, the flaws of Civilisation are obvious. In fact, the sexism and the silence on colonialism were already retrograde in 1969. But if these issues are fatal, then all European commentary on art from Plato to Baudelaire is also condemned. In the end, Michael Gill’s strategy seems to have worked: the irredeemably personal and subjective point of view gives the series a portrait-in-time quality that automatically qualifies Clark’s pronouncements. Moreover, the personal tone provides a positive, progressive example. Clark talks about aesthetic experiences as something available to everybody who takes the trouble to look with sympathy, and who finds a way to entertain different cultures. And his lordly dismissals (of Versailles, for example) demonstrated that it was okay to have idiosyncratic responses. It was not necessary to love it all.

Whatever you make of the series, it unquestionably established a genre of personal takes on vast topics, beginning with John Berger’s 1972 critical riposte Ways of Seeing (in which Berger channels Walter Benjamin more than speaks for himself), through Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973), David Attenborough’s Life on Earth (1979), Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New (1980), and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) and its 2014 sequel hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Taking a cue from the Cosmos sequel, the BBC, PBS, and a handful of other partners have announced a sequel to Civilisation to premiere in late 2017. In the new Civilisations (with two esses), a three-person team consisting of Simon Schama, Mary Beard, and David Olusoga will tackle “the story of art from the dawn of human history to the present day, for the first time on a global scale.”

But in the wake of 2016, I wonder how a global vision can be sustained. I think Clark would have grasped what has been happening.

He was a product of the Edwardian world, after all. He had already experienced nationalism overtaking internationalism around the world, and the idea of cultural heritage — European cultural heritage especially — critiqued to death by progressives and dismissed as boring by the new oligarchs. He knew that most of it was already lost, or disfigured by mis-preservation. But much remained, and he devoted his life to making people feel it was not merely important but theirs — their property, their identity. Not bad for a masked lord behind his glass wall.


Kevin McMahon is a writer, scholar, and archivist based in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Kevin McMahon is a writer, scholar, and archivist based in Los Angeles. He holds a bachelor’s in Classics from the University of Illinois and a master’s in Moving Image Archive Studies from UCLA. He has been the manager of SCI-Arc’s Kappe Library since 1987, and co-manager (with Reza Monahan) of the SCI-Arc Media Archive since 2012. His writing has appeared in a number of scholarly and popular journals.


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