I really enjoyed Tate Britain’s recent examination of the enormous influence exerted on the 20th century’s understanding of art history by one man – curator, collector and museum director Kenneth Clark.
The exhibition explored Clark through the works of art that he loved. Called simply Kenneth Clark: Looking For Civilisation – a reference to his groundbreaking 1960s TV series – it showed him to be a man at one with works ranging from medieval manuscripts, old masters and Greco-Roman sculptures to contemporary artists.
Clark – known simply as K to his upper-crust chums – was the product of the last gasp of Empire. Born in 1903, he was extremely wealthy and supremely well-connected. He was by his own admission a product of the idle rich.
His father, Kenneth McKenzie Clark, already rich and heir to a textile fortune, was reputed to be the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo. He retired in his early 40s and enjoyed a lifestyle that led the young K to observe that while some may have been richer than his papa it was doubtful that any could have been idler.
Friends of the family, whose fortune had been secured by the invention of the cotton-spool, included the great art critics Roger Fry and Bernard Berenson. Kenneth junior soon developed a deep love and understanding of modern French painting and the Italian Renaissance. It was the perfect grounding for a career that, after Winchester and Oxford, would find Clark bestriding the art world.
He was director of the National Gallery by the time he was 30 and did much to modernise that fusty, crusty old institution. In addition to bringing in works by Cezanne, Manet and Degas he insisted that the gloomy old building should be introduced to the illuminating possibilities of electric light.
Clark’s taste as a collector and connoisseur was not infallible. He made some mistakes along the way, buying some duds alongside the magnificent paintings he acquired. He had his detractors. There were those who thought him aloof and patronising. But he did much to popularise art and was a skilled communicator who during the 1940s proved a highly effective chairman of the War Artist’s Advisory Committee and later a powerful and natural broadcaster.
He championed artists like Henry Moore, Paul Nash, John Piper, Victor Pasmore and Graham Sutherland and even helped support them with his own money. He took his patronage seriously. In an article in The Listener in 1940 he stated: “…ideally it needs two people to make a picture: one to commission it and the other to carry it out.” He added that a patron should not simply pay an artist for his work, he should possess “enough critical understanding to see the direction in which the artist ought to go.”
Really? There is no evidence to suggest that Clark exerted undue pressure on those whose talents he supported. In Civilsation he said: “Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.”
Maybe Clark simply lavished attention, and money, on those he believed already fitted this description. Controversially, he believed that war artists should be exempt from doing their bit as say a stretcher-bearer or night watchman. Clark put it like this: As a firemen he will be of very little use to his country, but if he is a good artist he may bring it international renown.”
I met Clark a few times when I was a young newspaper reporter working in South East Kent. He had a patrician air but was not unfriendly and we had two or three interesting discussions about art and the direction it was taking. this was the 1970s.
Some years later my mother-in-law moved into a house next door to the Clark estate at Saltwood Castle. By then it was occupied by his throughly disagreeable son, the Conservative MP Alan Clark, best known for his indiscreet diaries, his womanising and his professed lust for Margaret Thatcher’s ankles. K, long elevated to the peerage, had moved into a modern house in the grounds. He invited me for coffee one day. I couldn’t help noticing there was a Rodin on the window sill. The media had made much of Clark being a man of the people. The fact was that though his heart was in the right place, he came from a completely different world from those he now sought to communicate with. He was socially, economically and historically removed from his audience and I think that made him just a little bit unhappy. Kenneth Clark died in 1983.