James Stourton’s observation, quite early on in this hefty tome, that his subject’s autobiography opens with one of the most memorable sentences in English (‘My parents belonged to a section of society known as the idle rich, and although, in that golden age, many people were richer, there can have been few who were idler.’) is in danger of leaving his reader avidly hungry for more of the same.
Stourton doesn’t disappoint, and one of the many pleasures of this illuminative and frankly enjoyable biography of a man who made it his mission to bring high art to the masses – he revolutionised how exhibits were curated in the National Gallery in London and later reached a global audience of untold millions with the first genuine television documentary series, Civilisation – is the skill Clarke deployed as a critic and historian. Throughout his life, whether in his autobiography, his publications, his television scripts or his copious correspondence, Clarke was incapable of writing a dull sentence, and it is uncanny that this gene passed to his eldest son, the MP, Alan, whose fame as a diarist whilst a member of Margaret Thatcher’s government briefly eclipsed that of his father in Britain.
As an interesting aside, Alan’s observations of his parents in his three volumes of celebrated diaries could be spiteful, and nor did Clark senior come to life in Ion Trewin’s biography of Alan: Stourton’s book is both timely and welcome because it readdresses the imbalance. Observers of both Clarks, however, will wonder why Alan felt the need to look for father figures so early in his career as a writer and politician (Hugh Trevor Roper, Enoch Powell) when he would have had daily access to the most famous art historian of his day.
But Kenneth Clark, a tenacious supporter throughout his life of artists from all backgrounds, keeps his distance from his growing brood. ‘Family history has very little charm for me,’ he wrote.
An only child, Clark had little in common with his parents – a psychologist’s dream, noted David Knowles – and his three children. Nor did his wife, Jane, (who was Irish, but Stourton dismisses her background), who grew to tolerate her absent husband’s affairs with dalliances of her own, a woman temperamentally unsuited for motherhood, whose milk of human kindness was alas no match for her alcoholism.
Stourton, thankfully, is much more interested in Clark the art historian than Clark the Byronic lover of women, of whom he had many on the go at the same time, some achievement considering the many demands on his time. Yet Clark always seemed to behave as a gentleman, and not the bullying misanthrope his son could often be. And yet, what segues both, are brains to burn and prosaists of the highest order.
Once you disentangle yourself from the chilling sangfroid of family life, especially after the Blitz, there is much to admire about Clark the art historian and Clark the great benefactor: though the scion of a wealthy family, Clare could be forgiven for becoming a lazy snob, but was anything but. He knew what he liked in art – the High Renaissance – but this did not blind him to green shoots in contemporary art – he was an early and lifelong supporter of Henry Moore and Sidney Nolan – and though he made enemies when he was appointed the youngest ever Director of the National Gallery, he didn’t bear grudges.
Criticism can often blind us to the beauty and magnificence of an objet d’art, but not with Kenneth Clark. He was forever his own man: though weaned on Ruskin and apprenticed to Bernard Berenson, it was never likely that one so precocious and gifted as he would be eclipsed by a polemical sage. He had confidence in the plenteousness of his prose to see, like Blake, a world in a grain of sand. And that is his legacy: a prescient critic. In Paris, Clark gifted Picasso a book on Henry Moore, and noted: ‘He sat for the rest of the meal, turning the pages like an old monkey that had got hold of a tin he can’t open.’ Wonderful.